The Counterfeiters XV : Olivier Visits the Comte de Passavant

“I was afraid your brother hadn’t delivered my message,” said Robert on seeing Olivier come into the room.

“Am I late?” he asked, coming forward timidly and almost on tip-toe. He had kept his hat in his hand and Robert took it from him.

“Put that down. Make yourself comfortable. Here, in this arm-chair, I think you’ll be all right. Not late at all, to judge by the clock. But my wish to see you went faster than the time. Do you smoke?”

“No, thank you,” said Olivier, waving aside the cigarette case, which the Comte de Passavant held out to him. He refused out of shyness, though he was really longing to try one of the slender, amber-scented cigarettes (Russian, no doubt) which lay ranged in the proffered case.

“Yes, I’m glad you were able to come. I was afraid you might be too much taken up with your examination. When is it?”

“The written is in ten days. But I’m not working much. I think I’m ready and I’m more afraid of being fagged when I go up.”

“Still, I suppose you’d refuse to undertake any other occupation just now?”

“No … if it isn’t too absorbing, that is.”

“I’ll tell you why I asked you to come. First, for the pleasure of seeing you again. The other night in the foyer, during the entr’ acte, we were just getting into a talk. I was exceedingly interested by what you said. I expect you don’t remember?”

“Oh yes, I do,” said Olivier, who was under the impression he had said nothing but stupidities.

“But to-day I have something special to say to you.… I think you know an individual of the Hebrew persuasion, called Dhurmer? Isn’t he one of your schoolfellows?”

“I have just this moment left him.”

“Ah! You see a good deal of each other?”

“Yes. We met at the Louvre to-day to talk about a review of which he is to be the editor.”

Robert burst into a loud, affected laugh.

“Ha! Ha! Ha! the editor!… He’s in a deuce of a hurry.… Did he really say that to you?”

“He has been talking to me about it for ever so long.”

“Yes. I have been thinking of it for some time past. The other day I asked him casually whether he’d agree to read over the manuscripts with me; that’s what he at once called becoming editor—not even sub-editor; I didn’t contradict him and he immediately … Just like him, isn’t it? What a fellow! He wants taking down a peg or two.… Don’t you really smoke?”

“After all, I think I will,” said Olivier, this time accepting. “Thank you.”

“Well, allow me to say, Olivier … you don’t mind my calling you Olivier, do you? I really can’t say Monsieur; you’re too young, and I’m too intimate with your brother Vincent to call you Molinier. Well then, Olivier, allow me to say that I have infinitely more confidence in your taste than in Mr. Solomon Dhurmer’s. Now would you consent to taking the literary direction? Under me a little, of course—at first, at any rate. But I prefer not to have my name on the cover. I’ll tell you why later.… Perhaps you’d take a glass of port wine, eh? I’ve got some that’s quite good.”

He stretched out his hand to a kind of little sideboard that stood near and took up a bottle of wine and two glasses, which he filled.

“Well! What do you think?”

“Yes, indeed; first-rate.”

“I wasn’t talking of the port,” protested Robert, laughing; “but of what I was saying just now.”

Olivier had pretended not to understand. He was afraid of accepting too quickly and of showing his joy too obviously. He blushed a little and stammered with confusion:

“My examination wouldn’t …”

“You have just told me that you weren’t giving much time to it,” interrupted Robert. “And besides, the review won’t come out yet awhile. I am wondering whether it wouldn’t be better to put off launching it till after the holidays. But in any case I had to sound you. We must get several numbers ready before October and we ought to see each other a great deal this summer so as to talk things over. What are you going to do these holidays?”

“I don’t know exactly. My people will probably be going to Normandy. They always do in the summer.”

“And you will have to go with them?… Couldn’t you let yourself be unhitched for a bit? …”

“My mother would never consent.”

“I’m dining to-night with your brother. May I speak to him about it?”

“Oh, Vincent won’t be with us.” Then, realizing that this sentence was no answer to the question, he added: “Besides, it wouldn’t do any good.”

“Well, but if we find a good reason to give Mamma?”

Olivier did not answer. He loved his mother tenderly and the mocking tone in which Robert alluded to her displeased him. Robert understood that he had gone too far.

“So you appreciate my port,” he said by way of diversion. “Have another glass?”

“No, no, thank you; but it’s excellent.”

“Yes, I was struck by the ripeness and sureness of your judgment the other night. Do you mean to go in for criticism?”

“No.”

“Poetry?… I know you write poetry.”

Olivier blushed again.

“Yes, your brother has betrayed you. And no doubt you know other young men who would be ready to contribute. This review must become a rallying ground for the younger generation. That’s its raison d’├¬tre. I should like you to help me draw up a kind of prospectus, a manifesto, which would just give a sketch of the new tendencies without defining them too precisely. We’ll talk it over later on. We must make a choice of two or three telling epithets; they mustn’t be neologisms; no old words that are thoroughly hackneyed; we’ll fill them with a brand new meaning and make the public swallow them. After Flaubert there was ‘cadenced and rhythmic’; after Leconte de Lisle, ‘hieratic and definitive’ … Oh! what would you say to ‘vital,’ eh?… ‘Unconscious and vital’ … No?… ‘Elementary, unconscious and vital’?”

“I think we might find something better still,” Olivier took courage to say, smiling, though without seeming to approve much.

“Come, another glass of port.… ”

“Not quite full, please.”

“You see, the great weakness of the symbolist school is that it brought nothing but an ├Žsthetic with it; all the other great schools brought with them, besides their new styles, a new ethic, new tables, a new way of looking at things, of understanding love, of behaving oneself in life. As for the symbolist, it’s perfectly simple; he didn’t behave himself at all in life; he didn’t attempt to understand it; he denied its existence; he turned his back on it. Absurd, don’t you think? They were a set of people without greed—without appetites even. Not like us … eh?”

Olivier had finished his second glass of port and his second cigarette. Reclining in his comfortable arm-chair, with his eyes half shut, he said nothing, but signified his assent by slightly nodding his head from time to time. At this moment a ring was heard, and almost immediately afterwards a servant entered with a card which he presented to Robert. Robert took the card, glanced at it and put it on his writing desk beside him.

“Very well. Ask him to wait a moment.” The servant went out. “Look here, my dear boy, I like you very much and I think we shall get on very well together. But somebody has just come whom I absolutely must see and he wants to speak to me alone.”

Olivier had risen.

“I’ll show you out by the garden, if you’ll allow me.… Ah! whilst I think of it. Would you care to have my new book? I’ve got a copy here, on hand-made paper.… ”

“I haven’t waited for that to read it,” said Olivier, who didn’t much care for Passavant’s book, and tried his best to be amiable without being fulsome.

Did Passavant detect in his tone a certain tincture of disdain? He went on quickly: “Oh, you needn’t say anything about it. If you were to tell me you liked it, I should be obliged to doubt either your taste or your sincerity. No; no one knows better than I do what’s lacking in the book. I wrote it much too quickly. To tell the truth, the whole time I was writing it I was thinking of my next one. Ah! that one is a different matter. I care about that one. Yes, I care about it exceedingly. You’ll see; you’ll see.… I’m so very sorry, but you really must leave me now.… Unless … No, no; we don’t know each other well enough yet, and your people are certainly expecting you back for dinner. Well, good-bye; au revoir. I’ll write your name in the book; allow me.”

He had risen; he went up to his writing desk. While he was stooping to write, Olivier stepped forward and glanced out of the corner of his eye at the card which the servant had just brought in:

VICTOR STROUVILHOU

Passavant handed Olivier the copy of The Horizontal Bar, and as Olivier was preparing to read the inscription:

“Look at it later,” said Passavant, slipping the book under his arm.

It was not till he was in the street that Olivier read the manuscript motto with which the Comte de Passavant had adorned the first page and which he had culled out of the book itself:

“Prithee, Orlando, a few steps further. I am not perfectly sure that I dare altogether take your meaning.”

Underneath which he had added:

TO OLIVIER MOLINIER

from his presumptive friend

COMTE ROBERT DE PASSAVANT

An ambiguous motto, which made Olivier wonder, but which after all he was perfectly free to interpret as he pleased.

Olivier got home just after Edouard had left, weary of waiting.