“EACH TIME I PLAY A SONG IT SEEMS MORE REAL.”
and with this song, pleople started to pay attention…
it all started with a kid mad about music who read the following book. Thank you RS and I leave those who are willing to, reading Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”:
MOTHER died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.
The Home for Aged Persons is at Marengo, some fifty miles from Algiers. With the two o’clock bus I should get there well before nightfall. Then I can spend the night there, keeping the usual vigil beside the body, and be back here by tomorrow evening. I have fixed up with my employer for two days’ leave; obviously, under the circumstances, he couldn’t refuse. Still, I had an idea he looked annoyed, and I said, without thinking: “Sorry, sir, but it’s not my fault, you know.”
Afterwards it struck me I needn’t have said that. I had no reason to excuse myself; it was up to him to express his sympathy and so forth. Probably he will do so the day after tomorrow, when he sees me in black. For the present, it’s almost as if Mother weren’t really dead. The funeral will bring it home to me, put an official seal on it, so to speak. …
I took the two-o’clock bus. It was a blazing hot afternoon. I’d lunched, as usual, at Céleste’s restaurant. Everyone was most kind, and Céleste said to me, “There’s no one like a mother.” When I left they came with me to the door. It was something of a rush, getting away, as at the last moment I had to call in at Emmanuel’s place to borrow his black tie and mourning band. He lost his uncle a few months ago.
I had to run to catch the bus. I suppose it was my hurrying like that, what with the glare off the road and from the sky, the reek of gasoline, and the jolts, that made me feel so drowsy. Anyhow, I slept most of the way. When I woke I was leaning against a soldier; he grinned and asked me if I’d come from a long way off, and I just nodded, to cut things short. I wasn’t in a mood for talking.
The Home is a little over a mile from the village. I went there on foot. I asked to be allowed to see Mother at once, but the doorkeeper told me I must see the warden first. He wasn’t free, and I had to wait a bit. The doorkeeper chatted with me while I waited; then he led me to the office. The warden was a very small man, with gray hair, and a Legion of Honor rosette in his buttonhole. He gave me a long look with his watery blue eyes. Then we shook hands, and he held mine so long that I began to feel embarrassed. After that he consulted a register on his table, and said:
“Madame Meursault entered the Home three years ago. She had no private means and depended entirely on you.” I had a feeling he was blaming me for something, and started to explain. But he cut me short.
“There’s no need to excuse yourself, my boy. I’ve looked up the record and obviously you weren’t in a position to see that she was properly cared for. She needed someone to be with her all the time, and young men in jobs like yours don’t get too much pay. In any case, she was much happier in the Home.”
I said, “Yes, sir; I’m sure of that.”
Then he added: “She had good friends here, you know, old folks like herself, and one gets on better with people of one’s own generation. You’re much too young; you couldn’t have been much of a companion to her.”
That was so. When we lived together, Mother was always watching me, but we hardly ever talked. During her first few weeks at the Home she used to cry a good deal. But that was only because she hadn’t settled down. After a month or two she’d have cried if she’d been told to leave the Home. Because this, too, would have been a wrench. That was why, during the last year, I seldom went to see her. Also, it would have meant losing my Sunday—not to mention the trouble of going to the bus, getting my ticket, and spending two hours on the journey each way.
The warden went on talking, but I didn’t pay much attention. Finally he said:
“Now, I suppose you’d like to see your mother?”
I rose without replying, and he led the way to the door. As we were going down the stairs he explained:
“I’ve had the body moved to our little mortuary—so as not to upset the other old people, you understand. Every time there’s a death here, they’re in a nervous state for two or three days. Which means, of course, extra work and worry for our staff.”
We crossed a courtyard where there were a number of old men, talking amongst themselves in little groups. They fell silent as we came up with them. Then, behind our backs, the chattering began again. Their voices reminded me of parakeets in a cage, only the sound wasn’t quite so shrill. The warden stopped outside the entrance of a small, low building.
“So here I leave you, Monsieur Meursault. If you want me for anything, you’ll find me in my office. We propose to have the funeral tomorrow morning. That will enable you to spend the night beside your mother’s coffin, as no doubt you would wish to do. Just one more thing; I gathered from your mother’s friends that she wished to be buried with the rites of the Church. I’ve made arrangements for this; but I thought I should let you know.”
I thanked him. So far as I knew, my mother, though not a professed atheist, had never given a thought to religion in her life.
I entered the mortuary. It was a bright, spotlessly clean room, with whitewashed walls and a big skylight. The furniture consisted of some chairs and trestles. Two of the latter stood open in the center of the room and the coffin rested on them. The lid was in place, but the screws had been given only a few turns and their nickeled heads stuck out above the wood, which was stained dark walnut. An Arab woman—a nurse, I supposed—was sitting beside the bier; she was wearing a blue smock and had a rather gaudy scarf wound round her hair.
Just then the keeper came up behind me. He’d evidently been running, as he was a little out of breath.
“We put the lid on, but I was told to unscrew it when you came, so that you could see her.”
While he was going up to the coffin I told him not to trouble.
“Eh? What’s that?” he exclaimed. “You don’t want me to …?”
“No,” I said.
He put back the screwdriver in his pocket and stared at me. I realized then that I shouldn’t have said, “No,” and it made me rather embarrassed. After eying me for some moments he asked:
“Why not?” But he didn’t sound reproachful; he simply wanted to know.
“Well, really I couldn’t say,” I answered.
He began twiddling his white mustache; then, without looking at me, said gently:
He was a pleasant-looking man, with blue eyes and ruddy cheeks. He drew up a chair for me near the coffin, and seated himself just behind. The nurse got up and moved toward the door. As she was going by, the keeper whispered in my ear:
“It’s a tumor she has, poor thing.”
I looked at her more carefully and I noticed that she had a bandage round her head, just below her eyes. It lay quite flat across the bridge of her nose, and one saw hardly anything of her face except that strip of whiteness.
As soon as she had gone, the keeper rose.
“Now I’ll leave you to yourself.”
I don’t know whether I made some gesture, but instead of going he halted behind my chair. The sensation of someone posted at my back made me uncomfortable. The sun was getting low and the whole room was flooded with a pleasant, mellow light. Two hornets were buzzing overhead, against the skylight. I was so sleepy I could hardly keep my eyes open. Without looking round, I asked the keeper how long he’d been at the Home. “Five years.” The answer came so pat that one could have thought he’d been expecting my question.
That started him off, and he became quite chatty. If anyone had told him ten years ago that he’d end his days as doorkeeper at a home at Marengo, he’d never have believed it. He was sixty-four, he said, and hailed from Paris.
When he said that, I broke in. “Ah, you don’t come from here?”
I remembered then that, before taking me to the warden, he’d told me something about Mother. He had said she’d have to be buried mighty quickly because of the heat in these parts, especially down in the plain. “At Paris they keep the body for three days, sometimes four.” After that he had mentioned that he’d spent the best part of his life in Paris, and could never manage to forget it. “Here,” he had said, “things have to go with a rush, like. You’ve hardly time to get used to the idea that someone’s dead, before you’re hauled off to the funeral.” “That’s enough,” his wife had put in. “You didn’t ought to say such things to the poor young gentleman.” The old fellow had blushed and begun to apologize. I told him it was quite all right. As a matter of fact, I found it rather interesting, what he’d been telling me; I hadn’t thought of that before.
Now he went on to say that he’d entered the Home as an ordinary inmate. But he was still quite hale and hearty, and when the keeper’s job fell vacant, he offered to take it on.
I pointed out that, even so, he was really an inmate like the others, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He was “an official, like.” I’d been struck before by his habit of saying “they” or, less often, “them old folks,” when referring to inmates no older than himself. Still, I could see his point of view. As doorkeeper he had a certain standing, and some authority over the rest of them.
Just then the nurse returned. Night had fallen very quickly; all of a sudden, it seemed, the sky went black above the skylight. The keeper switched on the lamps, and I was almost blinded by the blaze of light.
He suggested I should go to the refectory for dinner, but I wasn’t hungry. Then he proposed bringing me a mug of café au lait. As I am very partial to café au lait I said, “Thanks,” and a few minutes later he came back with a tray. I drank the coffee, and then I wanted a cigarette. But I wasn’t sure if I should smoke, under the circumstances—in Mother’s presence. I thought it over; really, it didn’t seem to matter, so I offered the keeper a cigarette, and we both smoked.
After a while he started talking again.
“You know, your mother’s friends will be coming soon, to keep vigil with you beside the body. We always have a ‘vigil’ here, when anyone dies. I’d better go and get some chairs and a pot of black coffee.”
The glare off the white walls was making my eyes smart, and I asked him if he couldn’t turn off one of the lamps. “Nothing doing,” he said. They’d arranged the lights like that; either one had them all on or none at all. After that I didn’t pay much more attention to him. He went out, brought some chairs, and set them out round the coffin. On one he placed a coffeepot and ten or a dozen cups. Then he sat down facing me, on the far side of Mother. The nurse was at the other end of the room, with her back to me. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but by the way her arms moved I guessed that she was knitting. I was feeling very comfortable; the coffee had warmed me up, and through the open door came scents of flowers and breaths of cool night air. I think I dozed off for a while.
I was wakened by an odd rustling in my ears. After having had my eyes closed, I had a feeling that the light had grown even stronger than before. There wasn’t a trace of shadow anywhere, and every object, each curve or angle, seemed to score its outline on one’s eyes. The old people, Mother’s friends, were coming in. I counted ten in all, gliding almost soundlessly through the bleak white glare. None of the chairs creaked when they sat down. Never in my life had I seen anyone so clearly as I saw these people; not a detail of their clothes or features escaped me. And yet I couldn’t hear them, and it was hard to believe they really existed.
Nearly all the women wore aprons, and the strings drawn tight round their waists made their big stomachs bulge still more. I’d never yet noticed what big paunches old women usually have. Most of the men, however, were as thin as rakes, and they all carried sticks. What struck me most about their faces was that one couldn’t see their eyes, only a dull glow in a sort of nest of wrinkles.
On sitting down, they looked at me, and wagged their heads awkwardly, their lips sucked in between their toothless gums. I couldn’t decide if they were greeting me and trying to say something, or if it was due to some infirmity of age. I inclined to think that they were greeting me, after their fashion, but it had a queer effect, seeing all those old fellows grouped round the keeper, solemnly eying me and dandling their heads from side to side. For a moment I had an absurd impression that they had come to sit in judgment on me.
A few minutes later one of the women started weeping. She was in the second row and I couldn’t see her face because of another woman in front. At regular intervals she emitted a little choking sob; one had a feeling she would never stop. The others didn’t seem to notice. They sat in silence, slumped in their chairs, staring at the coffin or at their walking sticks or any object just in front of them, and never took their eyes off it. And still the woman sobbed. I was rather surprised, as I didn’t know who she was. I wanted her to stop crying, but dared not speak to her. After a while the keeper bent toward her and whispered in her ear; but she merely shook her head, mumbled something I couldn’t catch, and went on sobbing as steadily as before.
The keeper got up and moved his chair beside mine. At first he kept silent; then, without looking at me, he explained.
“She was devoted to your mother. She says your mother was her only friend in the world, and now she’s all alone.”
I had nothing to say, and the silence lasted quite a while. Presently the woman’s sighs and sobs became less frequent, and, after blowing her nose and snuffling for some minutes, she, too, fell silent.
I’d ceased feeling sleepy, but I was very tired and my legs were aching badly. And now I realized that the silence of these people was telling on my nerves. The only sound was a rather queer one; it came only now and then, and at first I was puzzled by it. However, after listening attentively, I guessed what it was; the old men were sucking at the insides of their cheeks, and this caused the odd, wheezing noises that had mystified me. They were so much absorbed in their thoughts that they didn’t know what they were up to. I even had an impression that the dead body in their midst meant nothing at all to them. But now I suspect that I was mistaken about this.
We all drank the coffee, which the keeper handed round. After that, I can’t remember much; somehow the night went by. I can recall only one moment; I had opened my eyes and I saw the old men sleeping hunched up on their chairs, with one exception. Resting his chin on his hands clasped round his stick, he was staring hard at me, as if he had been waiting for me to wake. Then I fell asleep again. I woke up after a bit, because the ache in my legs had developed into a sort of cramp.
There was a glimmer of dawn above the skylight. A minute or two later one of the old men woke up and coughed repeatedly. He spat into a big check handkerchief, and each time he spat it sounded as if he were retching. This woke the others, and the keeper told them it was time to make a move. They all got up at once. Their faces were ashen gray after the long, uneasy vigil. To my surprise each of them shook hands with me, as though this night together, in which we hadn’t exchanged a word, had created a kind of intimacy between us.
I was quite done in. The keeper took me to his room, and I tidied myself up a bit. He gave me some more “white” coffee, and it seemed to do me good. When I went out, the sun was up and the sky mottled red above the hills between Marengo and the sea. A morning breeze was blowing and it had a pleasant salty tang. There was the promise of a very fine day. I hadn’t been in the country for ages, and I caught myself thinking what an agreeable walk I could have had, if it hadn’t been for Mother.
As it was, I waited in the courtyard, under a plane tree. I sniffed the smells of the cool earth and found I wasn’t sleepy any more. Then I thought of the other fellows in the office. At this hour they’d be getting up, preparing to go to work; for me this was always the worst hour of the day. I went on thinking, like this, for ten minutes or so; then the sound of a bell inside the building attracted my attention. I could see movements behind the windows; then all was calm again. The sun had risen a little higher and was beginning to warm my feet. The keeper came across the yard and said the warden wished to see me. I went to his office and he got me to sign some document. I noticed that he was in black, with pin-stripe trousers. He picked up the telephone receiver and looked at me.
“The undertaker’s men arrived some moments ago, and they will be going to the mortuary to screw down the coffin. Shall I tell them to wait, for you to have a last glimpse of your mother?”
“No,” I said.
He spoke into the receiver, lowering his voice. “That’s all right, Figeac. Tell the men to go there now.” He then informed me that he was going to attend the funeral, and I thanked him. Sitting down behind his desk, he crossed his short legs and leaned back. Besides the nurse on duty, he told me, he and I would be the only mourners at the funeral. It was a rule of the Home that inmates shouldn’t attend funerals, though there was no objection to letting some of them sit up beside the coffin, the night before.
“It’s for their own sakes,” he explained, “to spare their feelings. But in this particular instance I’ve given permission to an old friend of your mother to come with us. His name is Thomas Pérez.” The warden smiled. “It’s a rather touching little story in its way. He and your mother had become almost inseparable. The other old people used to tease Pérez about having a fiancée. ‘When are you going to marry her?’ they’d ask. He’d turn it with a laugh. It was a standing joke, in fact. So, as you can guess, he feels very badly about your mother’s death. I thought I couldn’t decently refuse him permission to attend the funeral. But, on our medical officer’s advice, I forbade him to sit up beside the body last night.”
For some time we sat there without speaking. Then the warden got up and went to the window. Presently he said:
“Ah, there’s the padre from Marengo. He’s a bit ahead of time.”
He warned me that it would take us a good three quarters of an hour, walking to the church, which was in the village. Then we went downstairs.
The priest was waiting just outside the mortuary door. With him were two acolytes, one of whom had a censer. The priest was stooping over him, adjusting the length of the silver chain on which it hung. When he saw us he straightened up and said a few words to me, addressing me as, “My son.” Then he led the way into the mortuary.
I noticed at once that four men in black were standing behind the coffin and the screws in the lid had now been driven home. At the same moment I heard the warden remark that the hearse had arrived, and the priest starting his prayers. Then everybody made a move. Holding a strip of black cloth, the four men approached the coffin, while the priest, the boys, and myself filed out. A lady I hadn’t seen before was standing by the door. “This is Monsieur Meursault,” the warden said to her. I didn’t catch her name, but I gathered she was a nursing sister attached to the Home. When I was introduced, she bowed, without the trace of a smile on her long, gaunt face. We stood aside from the doorway to let the coffin by; then, following the bearers down a corridor, we came to the front entrance, where a hearse was waiting. Oblong, glossy, varnished black all over, it vaguely reminded me of the pen trays in the office.
Beside the hearse stood a quaintly dressed little -man, whose duty it was, I understood, to supervise the funeral, as a sort of master of ceremonies. Near him, looking constrained, almost bashful, was old M. Pérez, my mother’s special friend. He wore a soft felt hat with a pudding-basin crown and a very wide brim—he whisked it off the moment the coffin emerged from the doorway—trousers that concertina’d on his shoes, a black tie much too small for his high white double collar. Under a bulbous, pimply nose, his lips were trembling. But what caught my attention most was his ears; pendulous, scarlet ears that showed up like blobs of sealing wax on the pallor of his cheeks and were framed in wisps of silky white hair.
The undertaker’s factotum shepherded us to our places, with the priest in front of the hearse, and the four men in black on each side of it. The warden and myself came next, and, bringing up the rear, old Pérez and the nurse.
The sky was already a blaze of light, and the air stoking up rapidly. I felt the first waves of heat lapping my back, and my dark suit made things worse. I couldn’t imagine why we waited so long for getting under way. Old Pérez, who had put on his hat, took it off again. I had turned slightly in his direction and was looking at him when the warden started telling me more about him. I remember his saying that old Pérez and my mother used often to have a longish stroll together in the cool of the evening; sometimes they went as far as the village, accompanied by a nurse, of course.
I looked at the countryside, at the long lines of cypresses sloping up toward the skyline and the hills, the hot red soil dappled with vivid green, and here and there a lonely house sharply outlined against the light—and I could understand Mother’s feelings. Evenings in these parts must be a sort of mournful solace. Now, in the full glare of the morning sun, with everything shimmering in the heat haze, there was something inhuman, discouraging, about this landscape.
At last we made a move. Only then I noticed that Pérez had a slight limp. The old chap steadily lost ground as the hearse gained speed. One of the men beside it, too, fell back and drew level with me. I was surprised to see how quickly the sun was climbing up the sky, and just then it struck me that for quite a while the air had been throbbing with the hum of insects and the rustle of grass warming up. Sweat was running down my face. As I had no hat I tried to fan myself with my handkerchief.
The undertaker’s man turned to me and said something that I didn’t catch. At that same time he wiped the crown of his head with a handkerchief that he held in his left hand, while with his right he tilted up his hat. I asked him what he’d said. He pointed upward.
“Sun’s pretty bad today, ain’t it?”
“Yes,” I said.
After a while he asked: “Is it your mother we’re burying?”
“Yes,” I said again.
“What was her age?”
“Well, she was getting on.” As a matter of fact, I didn’t know exactly how old she was.
After that he kept silent. Looking back, I saw Pérez limping along some fifty yards behind. He was swinging his big felt hat at arm’s length, trying to make the pace. I also had a look at the warden. He was walking with carefully measured steps, economizing every gesture. Beads of perspiration glistened on his forehead, but he didn’t wipe them off.
I had an impression that our little procession was moving slightly faster. Wherever I looked I saw the same sun-drenched countryside, and the sky was so dazzling that I dared not raise my eyes. Presently we struck a patch of freshly tarred road. A shimmer of heat played over it and one’s feet squelched at each step, leaving bright black gashes. In front, the coachman’s glossy black hat looked like a lump of the same sticky substance, poised above the hearse. It gave one a queer, dreamlike impression, that blue-white glare overhead and all this blackness round one: the sleek black of the hearse, the dull black of the men’s clothes, and the silvery-black gashes in the road. And then there were the smells, smells of hot leather and horse dung from the hearse, veined with whiffs of incense smoke. What with these and the hangover from a poor night’s sleep, I found my eyes and thoughts growing blurred.
I looked back again. Pérez seemed very far away now, almost hidden by the heat haze; then, abruptly, he disappeared altogether. After puzzling over it for a bit, I guessed that he had turned off the road into the fields. Then I noticed that there was a bend of the road a little way ahead. Obviously Pérez, who knew the district well, had taken a short cut, so as to catch up with us. He rejoined us soon after we were round the bend; then began to lose ground again. He took another short cut and met us again farther on; in fact, this happened several times during the next half-hour. But soon I lost interest in his movements; my temples were throbbing and I could hardly drag myself along.
After that everything went with a rush; and also with such precision and matter-of-factness that I remember hardly any details. Except that when we were on the outskirts of the village the nurse said something to me. Her voice took me by surprise; it didn’t match her face at all; it was musical and slightly tremulous. What she said was: “If you go too slowly there’s the risk of a heatstroke. But, if you go too fast, you perspire, and the cold air in the church gives you a chill.” I saw her point; either way one was in for it.
Some other memories of the funeral have stuck in my mind. The old boy’s face, for instance, when he caught up with us for the last time, just outside the village. His eyes were streaming with tears, of exhaustion or distress, or both together. But because of the wrinkles they couldn’t flow down. They spread out, crisscrossed, and formed a smooth gloss on the old, worn face.
And I can remember the look of the church, the villagers in the street, the red geraniums on the graves, Pérez’s fainting fit—he crumpled up like a rag doll—the tawny-red earth pattering on Mother’s coffin, the bits of white roots mixed up with it; then more people, voices, the wait outside a café for the bus, the rumble of the engine, and my little thrill of pleasure when we entered the first brightly lit streets of Algiers, and I pictured myself going straight to bed and sleeping twelve hours at a stretch.
ON WAKING I understood why my employer had looked rather cross when I asked for my two days off; it’s a Saturday today. I hadn’t thought of this at the time; it only struck me when I was getting out of bed. Obviously he had seen that it would mean my getting four days’ holiday straight off, and one couldn’t expect him to like that. Still, for one thing, it wasn’t my fault if Mother was buried yesterday and not today; and then, again, I’d have had my Saturday and Sunday off in any case. But naturally this didn’t prevent me from seeing my employer’s point.
Getting up was an effort, as I’d been really exhausted by the previous day’s experiences. While shaving, I wondered how to spend the morning, and decided that a swim would do me good. So I caught the streetcar that goes down to the harbor.
It was quite like old times; a lot of young people were in the swimming pool, amongst them Marie Cardona, who used to be a typist at the office. I was rather keen on her in those days, and I fancy she liked me, too. But she was with us so short a time that nothing came of it.
While I was helping her to climb on to a raft, I let my hand stray over her breasts. Then she lay flat on the raft, while I trod water. After a moment she turned and looked at me. Her hair was over her eyes and she was laughing. I clambered up on to the raft, beside her. The air was pleasantly warm, and, half jokingly, I let my head sink back upon her lap. She didn’t seem to mind, so I let it stay there. I had the sky full in my eyes, all blue and gold, and I could feel Marie’s stomach rising and falling gently under my head. We must have stayed a good half-hour on the raft, both of us half asleep. When the sun got too hot she dived off and I followed. I caught up with her, put my arm round her waist, and we swam side by side. She was still laughing.
While we were drying ourselves on the edge of the swimming pool she said: “I’m browner than you.” I asked her if she’d come to the movies with me that evening. She laughed again and said, “Yes,” if I’d take her to the comedy everybody was talking about, the one with Fernandel in it.
When we had dressed, she stared at my black tie and asked if I was in mourning. I explained that my mother had died. “When?” she asked, and I said, “Yesterday.” She made no remark, though I thought she shrank away a little. I was just going to explain to her that it wasn’t my fault, but I checked myself, as I remembered having said the same thing to my employer, and realizing then it sounded rather foolish. Still, foolish or not, somehow one can’t help feeling a bit guilty, I suppose.
Anyhow, by evening Marie had forgotten all about it. The film was funny in parts, but some of it was downright stupid. She pressed her leg against mine while we were in the picture house, and I was fondling her breast. Toward the end of the show I kissed her, but rather clumsily. Afterward she came back with me to my place.
14 Albert Camus THE STRANGER
When I woke up, Marie had gone. She’d told me her aunt expected her first thing in the morning. I remembered it was a Sunday, and that put me off; I’ve never cared for Sundays. So I turned my head and lazily sniffed the smell of brine that Marie’s head had left on the pillow. I slept until ten. After that I stayed in bed until noon, smoking cigarettes. I decided not to lunch at Céleste’s restaurant as I usually did; they’d be sure to pester me with questions, and I dislike being questioned. So I fried some eggs and ate them off the pan. I did without bread as there wasn’t any left, and I couldn’t be bothered going down to buy it.
After lunch I felt at loose ends and roamed about the little flat. It suited us well enough when Mother was with me, but now that I was by myself it was too large and I’d moved the dining table into my bedroom. That was now the only room I used; it had all the furniture I needed: a brass bedstead, a dressing table, some cane chairs whose seats had more or less caved in, a wardrobe with a tarnished mirror. The rest of the flat was never used, so I didn’t trouble to look after it.
A bit later, for want of anything better to do, I picked up an old newspaper that was lying on the floor and read it. There was an advertisement of Kruschen Salts and I cut it out and pasted in into an album where I keep things that amuse me in the papers. Then I washed my hands and, as a last resource, went out on to the balcony.
My bedroom overlooks the main street of our district. Though it was a fine afternoon, the paving blocks were black and glistening. What few people were about seemed in an absurd hurry. First of all there came a family, going for their Sunday-afternoon walk; two small boys in sailor suits, with short trousers hardly down to their knees, and looking rather uneasy in their Sunday best; then a little girl with a big pink bow and black patent-leather shoes. Behind them was their mother, an enormously fat woman in a brown silk dress, and their father, a dapper little man, whom I knew by sight. He had a straw hat, a walking stick, and a butterfly tie. Seeing him beside his wife, I understood why people said he came of a good family and had married beneath him.
Next came a group of young fellows, the local “bloods,” with sleek oiled hair, red ties, coats cut very tight at the waist, braided pockets, and square-toed shoes. I guessed they were going to one of the big theaters in the center of the town. That was why they had started out so early and were hurrying to the streetcar stop, laughing and talking at the top of their voices.
After they had passed, the street gradually emptied. By this time all the matinees must have begun. Only a few shopkeepers and cats remained about. Above the sycamores bordering the road the sky was cloudless, but the light was soft. The tobacconist on the other side of the street brought a chair out on to the pavement in front of his door and sat astride it, resting his arms on the back. The streetcars which a few minutes before had been crowded were now almost empty. In the little café, Chez Pierrot, beside the tobacconist’s, the waiter was sweeping up the sawdust in the empty restaurant. A typical Sunday afternoon. …
I turned my chair round and seated myself like the tobacconist, as it was more comfortable that way. After smoking a couple of cigarettes I went back to the room, got a tablet of chocolate, and returned to the window to eat it. Soon after, the sky clouded over, and I thought a summer storm was coming. However, the clouds gradually lifted. All the same, they had left in the street a sort of threat of rain, which made it darker. I stayed watching the sky for quite a while.
At five there was a loud clanging of streetcars. They were coming from the stadium in our suburb where there had been a football match. Even the back platforms were crowded and people were standing on the steps. Then another streetcar brought back the teams. I knew they were the players by the little suitcase each man carried. They were bawling out their team song, “Keep the ball rolling, boys.” One of them looked up at me and shouted, “We licked them!” I waved my hand and called back, “Good work!” From now on there was a steady stream of private cars.
The sky had changed again; a reddish glow was spreading up beyond the housetops. As dusk set in, the street grew more crowded. People were returning from their walks, and I noticed the dapper little man with the fat wife amongst the passers-by. Children were whimpering and trailing wearily after their parents. After some minutes the local picture houses disgorged their audiences. I noticed that the young fellows coming from them were taking longer strides and gesturing more vigorously than at ordinary times; doubtless the picture they’d been seeing was of the wild-West variety. Those who had been to the picture houses in the middle of the town came a little later, and looked more sedate, though a few were still laughing. On the whole, however, they seemed languid and exhausted. Some of them remained loitering in the street under my window. A group of girls came by, walking arm in arm. The young men under my window swerved so as to brush against them, and shouted humorous remarks, which made the girls turn their heads and giggle. I recognized them as girls from my part of the town, and two or three of them, whom I knew, looked up and waved to me.
Just then the street lamps came on, all together, and they made the stars that were beginning to glimmer in the night sky paler still. I felt my eyes getting tired, what with the lights and all the movement I’d been watching in the street. There were little pools of brightness under the lamps, and now and then a streetcar passed, lighting up a girl’s hair, or a smile, or a silver bangle.
Soon after this, as the streetcars became fewer and the sky showed velvety black above the trees and lamps, the street grew emptier, almost imperceptibly, until a time came when there was nobody to be seen and a cat, the first of the evening, crossed, unhurrying, the deserted street.
It struck me that I’d better see about some dinner. I had been leaning so long on the back of my chair, looking down, that my neck hurt when I straightened myself up. I went down, bought some bread and spaghetti, did my cooking, and ate my meal standing. I’d intended to smoke another cigarette at my window, but the night had turned rather chilly and I decided against it. As I was coming back, after shutting the window, I glanced at the mirror and saw reflected in it a corner of my table with my spirit lamp and some bits of bread beside it. It occurred to me that somehow I’d got through another Sunday, that Mother now was buried, and tomorrow I’d be going back to work as usual. Really, nothing in my life had changed.
I HAD a busy morning in the office. My employer was in a good humor. He even inquired if I wasn’t too tired, and followed it up by asking what Mother’s age was. I thought a bit, then answered, “Round about sixty,” as I didn’t want to make a blunder. At which he looked relieved—why, I can’t imagine—and seemed to think that closed the matter.
There was a pile of bills of lading waiting on my desk, and I had to go through them all. Before leaving for lunch I washed my hands. I always enjoyed doing this at midday. In the evening it was less pleasant, as the roller towel, after being used by so many people, was sopping wet. I once brought this to my employer’s notice. It was regrettable, he agreed—but, to his mind, a mere detail. I left the office building a little later than usual, at half-past twelve, with Emmanuel, who works in the Forwarding Department. Our building overlooks the sea, and we paused for a moment on the steps to look at the shipping in the. harbor. The sun was scorching hot. Just then a big truck came up, with a din of chains and backfires from the engine, and Emmanuel suggested we should try to jump it. I started to run. The truck was well away, and we had to chase it for quite a distance. What with the heat and the noise from the engine, I felt half dazed. All I was conscious of was our mad rush along the water front, amongst cranes and winches, with dark hulls of ships alongside and masts swaying in the offing. I was the first to catch up with the truck. I took a flying jump, landed safely, and helped Emmanuel to scramble in beside me. We were both of us out of breath, and the bumps of the truck on the roughly laid cobbles made things worse. Emmanuel chuckled, and panted in my ear, “We’ve made it!”
By the time we reached Céleste’s restaurant we were dripping with sweat. Céleste was at his usual place beside the entrance, with his apron bulging on his paunch, his white mustache well to the fore. When he saw me he was sympathetic and “hoped I wasn’t feeling too badly.” I said, “No,” but I was extremely hungry. I ate very quickly and had some coffee to finish up. Then I went to my place and took a short nap, as I’d drunk a glass of wine too many.
When I woke I smoked a cigarette before getting off my bed. I was a bit late and had to run for the streetcar. The office was stifling, and I was kept hard at it all the afternoon. So it came as a relief when we closed down and I was strolling slowly along the wharves in the coolness. The sky was green, and it was pleasant to be out-of-doors after the stuffy office. However, I went straight home, as I had to put some potatoes on to boil.
The hall was dark and, when I was starting up the stairs, I almost bumped into old Salamano, who lived on the same floor as I. As usual, he had his dog with him. For eight years the two had been inseparable. Salamano’s spaniel is an ugly brute, afflicted with some skin disease—mange, I suspect; anyhow, it has lost all its hair and its body is covered with brown scabs. Perhaps through living in one small room, cooped up with his dog, Salamano has come to resemble it. His towy hair has gone very thin, and he has reddish blotches on his face. And the dog has developed something of its master’s queer hunched-up gait; it always has its muzzle stretched far forward and its nose to the ground. But, oddly enough, though so much alike, they detest each other.
Twice a day, at eleven and six, the old fellow takes his dog for a walk, and for eight years that walk has never varied. You can see them in the rue de Lyon, the dog pulling his master along as hard as he can, till finally the old chap misses a step and nearly falls. Then he beats his dog and calls it names. The dog cowers and lags behind, and it’s his master’s turn to drag him along. Presently the dog forgets, starts tugging at the leash again, gets another hiding and more abuse. Then they halt on the pavement, the pair of them, and glare at each other; the dog with terror and the man with hatred in his eyes. Every time they’re out, this happens. When the dog wants to stop at a lamppost, the old boy won’t let him, and drags him on, and the wretched spaniel leaves behind him a trail of little drops. But, if he does it in the room, it means another hiding.
It’s been going on like this for eight years, and Céleste always says it’s a “crying shame,” and something should be done about it; but really one can’t be sure. When I met him in the hall, Salamano was bawling at his dog, calling him a bastard, a lousy mongrel, and so forth, and the dog was whining. I said, “Good evening,” but the old fellow took no notice and went on cursing. So I thought I’d ask him what the dog had done. Again, he didn’t answer, but went on shouting, “You bloody cur!” and the rest of it. I couldn’t see very clearly, but he seemed to be fixing something on the dog’s collar. I raised my voice a little. Without looking round, he mumbled in a sort of suppressed fury: “He’s always in the way, blast him!” Then he started up the stairs, but the dog tried to resist and flattened itself out on the floor, so he had to haul it up on the leash, step by step.
Just then another man who lives on my floor came in from the street. The general idea hereabouts is that he’s a pimp. But if you ask him what his job is, he says he’s a warehouseman. One thing’s sure: he isn’t popular in our street. Still, he often has a word for me, and drops in sometimes for a short talk in my room, because I listen to him. As a matter of fact, I find what he says quite interesting. So, really I’ve no reason for freezing him off. His name is Sintès; Raymond Sintès. He’s short and thick-set, has a nose like a boxer’s, and always dresses very sprucely. He, too, once said to me, referring to Salamano, that it was “a damned shame,” and asked me if I wasn’t disgusted by the way the old man served his dog. I answered: “No.”
We went up the stairs together, Sintès and I, and when I was turning in at my door, he said:
“Look here! How about having some grub with me? I’ve a black pudding and some wine.”
It struck me that this would save my having to cook my dinner, so I said, “Thanks very much.”
He, too, has only one room, and a little kitchen without a window. I saw a pink-and-white plaster angel above his bed, and some photos of sporting champions and naked girls pinned to the opposite wall. The bed hadn’t been made and the room was dirty. He began by lighting a paraffin lamp; then fumbled in his pocket and produced a rather grimy bandage, which he wrapped round his right hand. I asked him what the trouble was. He told me he’d been having a roughhouse with a fellow who’d annoyed him.
“I’m not one who looks for trouble,” he explained, “only I’m a bit short-tempered. That fellow said to me, challenging-like, ‘Come down off that streetcar, if you’re a man.’ I says, ‘You keep quiet, I ain’t done nothing to you.’ Then he said I hadn’t any guts. Well, that settled it. I got down off the streetcar and I said to him, ‘You better keep your mouth shut, or I’ll shut it for you.’ ‘I’d like to see you try!’ says he. Then I gave him one across the face, and laid him out good and proper. After a bit I started to help him get up, but all he did was to kick at me from where he lay. So I gave him one with my knee and a couple more swipes. He was bleeding like a pig when I’d done with him. I asked him if he’d had enough, and he said, ‘Yes.’ ”
Sintès was busy fixing his bandage while he talked, and I was sitting on the bed.
“So you see,” he said, “it wasn’t my fault; he was asking for it, wasn’t he?”
I nodded, and he added:
“As a matter of fact, I rather want to ask your advice about something; it’s connected with this business. You’ve knocked about the world a bit, and I daresay you can help me. And then I’ll be your pal for life; I never forget anyone who does me a good turn.”
When I made no comment, he asked me if I’d like us to be pals. I replied that I had no objection, and that appeared to satisfy him. He got out the black pudding, cooked it in a frying pan, then laid the table, putting out two bottles of wine. While he was doing this he didn’t speak.
We started dinner, and then he began telling me the whole story, hesitating a bit at first.
“There’s a girl behind it—as usual. We slept together pretty regular. I was keeping her, as a matter of fact, and she cost me a tidy sum. That fellow I knocked down is her brother.”
Noticing that I said nothing, he added that he knew what the neighbors said about him, but it was a filthy lie. He had his principles like everybody else, and a job in a warehouse.
“Well,” he said, “to go on with my story … I found out one day that she was letting me down.” He gave her enough money to keep her going, without extravagance, though; he paid the rent of her room and twenty francs a day for food. “Three hundred francs for rent, and six hundred for her grub, with a little present thrown in now and then, a pair of stockings or whatnot. Say, a thousand francs a month. But that wasn’t enough for my fine lady; she was always grumbling that she couldn’t make both ends meet with what I gave her. So one day I says to her, ‘Look here, why not get a job for a few hours a day? That’d make things easier for me, too. I bought you a new dress this month, I pay your rent and give you twenty francs a day. But you go and waste your money at the café with a pack of girls. You give them coffee and sugar. And, of course, the money comes out of my pocket. I treat you on the square, and that’s how you pay me back.’ But she wouldn’t hear of working, though she kept on saying she couldn’t make do with what I gave her. And then one day I found out she was doing me dirt.”
He went on to explain that he’d found a lottery ticket in her bag, and, when he asked where the money’d come from to buy it, she wouldn’t tell him. Then, another time, he’d found a pawn ticket for two bracelets that he’d never set eyes on.
“So I knew there was dirty work going on, and I told her I’d have nothing more to do with her. But, first, I gave her a good hiding, and I told her some home truths. I said that there was only one thing interested her and that was getting into bed with men whenever she’d the chance. And I warned her straight, ‘You’ll be sorry one day, my girl, and wish you’d got me back. All the girls in the street, they’re jealous of your luck in having me to keep you.’ ”
He’d beaten her till the blood came. Before that he’d never beaten her. “Well, not hard, anyhow; only affectionately-like. She’d howl a bit, and I had to shut the window. Then, of course, it ended as per usual. But this time I’m done with her. Only, to my mind, I ain’t punished her enough. See what I mean?”
He explained that it was about this he wanted my advice. The lamp was smoking, and he stopped pacing up and down the room, to lower the wick. I just listened, without speaking. I’d had a whole bottle of wine to myself and my head was buzzing. As I’d used up my cigarettes I was smoking Raymond’s. Some late streetcars passed, and the last noises of the street died off with them. Raymond went on talking. What bored him was that he had “a sort of lech on her” as he called it. But he was quite determined to teach her a lesson.
His first idea, he said, had been to take her to a hotel, and then call in the special police. He’d persuade them to put her on the register as a “common prostitute,” and that would make her wild. Then he’d looked up some friends of his in the underworld, fellows who kept tarts for what they could make out of them, but they had practically nothing to suggest. Still, as he pointed out, that sort of thing should have been right up their street; what’s the good of being in that line if you don’t know how to treat a girl who’s let you down? When he told them that, they suggested he should “brand” her. But that wasn’t what he wanted, either. It would need a lot of thinking out. … But, first, he’d like to ask me something. Before he asked it, though, he’d like to have my opinion of the story he’d been telling, in a general way.
I said I hadn’t any, but I’d found it interesting.
Did I think she really had done him dirt?
I had to admit it looked like that. Then he asked me if I didn’t think she should be punished and what I’d do if I were in his shoes. I told him one could never be quite sure how to act in such cases, but I quite understood his wanting her to suffer for it.
I drank some more wine, while Raymond lit another cigarette and began explaining what he proposed to do. He wanted to write her a letter, “a real stinker, that’ll get her on the raw,” and at the same time make her repent of what she’d done. Then, when she came back, he’d go to bed with her and, just when she was “properly primed up,” he’d spit in her face and throw her out of the room. I agreed it wasn’t a bad plan; it would punish her, all right.
But, Raymond told me, he didn’t feel up to writing the kind of letter that was needed, and that was where I could help. When I didn’t say anything, he asked me if I’d mind doing it right away, and I said, “No,” I’d have a shot at it.
He drank off a glass of wine and stood up. Then he pushed aside the plates and the bit of cold pudding that was left, to make room on the table. After carefully wiping the oilcloth, he got a sheet of squared paper from the drawer of his bedside table; after that, an envelope, a small red wooden penholder, and a square inkpot with purple ink in it. The moment he mentioned the girl’s name I knew she was a Moor.
I wrote the letter. I didn’t take much trouble over it, but I wanted to satisfy Raymond, as I’d no reason not to satisfy him. Then I read out what I’d written. Puffing at his cigarette, he listened, nodding now and then. “Read it again, please,” he said. He seemed delighted. “That’s the stuff,” he chuckled. “I could tell you was a brainy sort, old boy, and you know what’s what.”
At first I hardly noticed that “old boy.” It came back to me when he slapped me on the shoulder and said, “So now we’re pals, ain’t we?” I kept silence and he said it again. I didn’t care one way or the other, but as he seemed so set on it, I nodded and said, “Yes.”
He put the letter into the envelope and we finished off the wine. Then both of us smoked for some minutes, without speaking. The street was quite quiet, except when now and again a car passed. Finally, I remarked that it was getting late, and Raymond agreed. “Time’s gone mighty fast this evening,” he added, and in a way that was true. I wanted to be in bed, only it was such an effort making a move. I must have looked tired, for Raymond said to me, “You mustn’t let things get you down.” At first I didn’t catch his meaning. Then he explained that he had heard of my mother’s death; anyhow, he said, that was something bound to happen one day or another. I appreciated that, and told him so.
When I rose, Raymond shook hands very warmly, remarking that men always understood each other. After closing the door behind me I lingered for some moments on the landing. The whole building was as quiet as the grave, a dank, dark smell rising from the well hole of the stairs. I could hear nothing but the blood throbbing in my ears, and for a while I stood still, listening to it. Then the dog began to moan in old Salamano’s room, and through the sleep-bound house the little plaintive sound rose slowly, like a flower growing out of the silence and the darkness.
I HAD a busy time in the office throughout the week. Raymond dropped in once to tell me he’d sent off the letter. I went to the pictures twice with Emmanuel, who doesn’t always understand what’s happening on the screen and asks me to explain it. Yesterday was Saturday, and Marie came as we’d arranged. She had a very pretty dress, with red and white stripes, and leather sandals, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her. One could see the outline of her firm little breasts, and her sun-tanned face was like a velvety brown flower. We took the bus and went to a beach I know, some miles out of Algiers. It’s just a strip of sand between two rocky spurs, with a line of rushes at the back, along the tide line. At four o’clock the sun wasn’t too hot, but the water was pleasantly tepid, and small, languid ripples were creeping up the sand.
Marie taught me a new game. The idea was, while one swam, to suck in the spray off the waves and, when one’s mouth was full of foam, to lie on one’s back and spout it out against the sky. It made a sort of frothy haze that melted into the air or fell back in a warm shower on one’s cheeks. But very soon my mouth was smarting with all the salt I’d drawn in; then Marie came up and hugged me in the water, and pressed her mouth to mine. Her tongue cooled my lips, and we let the waves roll us about for a minute or two before swimming back to the beach.
When we had finished dressing, Marie looked hard at me. Her eyes were sparkling. I kissed her; after that neither of us spoke for quite a while. I pressed her to my side as we scrambled up the foreshore. Both of us were in a hurry to catch the bus, get back to my place, and tumble on to the bed. I’d left my window open, and it was pleasant to feel the cool night air flowing over our sunburned bodies.
Marie said she was free next morning, so I proposed she should have luncheon with me. She agreed, and I went down to buy some meat. On my way back I heard a woman’s voice in Raymond’s room. A little later old Salamano started grumbling at his dog and presently there was a sound of boots and paws on the wooden stairs; then, “Filthy brute! Get on, you cur!” and the two of them went out into the street. I told Marie about the old man’s habits, and it made her laugh. She was wearing one of my pajama suits, and had the sleeves rolled up. When she laughed I wanted her again. A moment later she asked me if I loved her. I said that sort of question had no meaning, really; but I supposed I didn’t. She looked sad for a bit, but when we were getting our lunch ready she brightened up and started laughing, and when she laughs I always want to kiss her. It was just then that the row started in Raymond’s room.
First we heard a woman saying something in a high-pitched voice; then Raymond bawling at her, “You let me down, you bitch! I’ll learn you to let me down!” There came some thuds, then a piercing scream—it made one’s blood run cold—and in a moment there was a crowd of people on the landing. Marie and I went out to see. The woman was still screaming and Raymond still knocking her about. Marie said, wasn’t it horrible! I didn’t answer anything. Then she asked me to go and fetch a policeman, but I told her I didn’t like policemen. However, one turned up presently; the lodger on the second floor, a plumber, came up, with him. When he banged on the door the noise stopped inside the room. He knocked again, and, after a moment, the woman started crying, and Raymond opened the door. He had a cigarette dangling from his underlip and a rather sickly smile.
“Your name?” Raymond gave his name. “Take that cigarette out of your mouth when you’re talking to me,” the policeman said gruffly. Raymond hesitated, glanced at me, and kept the cigarette in his mouth. The policeman promptly swung his arm and gave him a good hard smack on the left cheek. The cigarette shot from his lips and dropped a yard away. Raymond made a wry face, but said nothing for a moment. Then in a humble tone he asked if he mightn’t pick up his cigarette.
The officer said, “Yes,” and added: “But don’t you forget next time that we don’t stand for any nonsense, not from guys like you.”
Meanwhile the girl went on sobbing and repeating: “He hit me, the coward. He’s a pimp.”
“Excuse me, officer,” Raymond put in, “but is that in order, calling a man a pimp in the presence of witnesses?”
The policeman told him to shut his trap.
Raymond then turned to the girl. “Don’t you worry, my pet. We’ll meet again.”
“That’s enough,” the policeman said, and told the girl to go away. Raymond was to stay in his room till summoned to the police station. “You ought to be ashamed of yourself,” the policeman added, “getting so tight you can’t stand steady. Why, you’re shaking all over!”
“I’m not tight,” Raymond explained. “Only when I see you standing there and looking at me, I can’t help trembling. That’s only natural.”
Then he closed his door, and we all went away. Marie and I finished getting our lunch ready. But she hadn’t any appetite, and I ate nearly all. She left at one, and then I had a nap.
Toward three there was a knock at my door and Raymond came in. He sat down on the edge of my bed and for a minute or two said nothing. I asked him how it had gone off. He said it had all gone quite smoothly at first, as per program; only then she’d slapped his face and he’d seen red, and started thrashing her. As for what happened after that, he needn’t tell me, as I was there.
“Well,” I said, “you taught her a lesson, all right, and that’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
He agreed, and pointed out that whatever the police did, that wouldn’t change the fact she’d had her punishment. As for the police, he knew exactly how to handle them. But he’d like to know if I’d expected him to return the blow when the policeman hit him.
I told him I hadn’t expected anything whatsoever and, anyhow, I had no use for the police. Raymond seemed pleased and asked if I’d like to come out for a stroll with him. I got up from the bed and started brushing my hair. Then Raymond said that what he really wanted was for me to act as his witness. I told him I had no objection; only I didn’t know what he expected me to say.
“It’s quite simple,” he replied. “You’ve only got to tell them that the girl had let me down.”
So I agreed to be his witness.
We went out together, and Raymond stood me a brandy in a café. Then we had a game of billiards; it was a close game and I lost by only a few points. After that he proposed going to a brothel, but I refused; I didn’t feel like it. As we were walking slowly back he told me how pleased he was at having paid out his mistress so satisfactorily. He made himself extremely amiable to me, and I quite enjoyed our walk.
When we were nearly home I saw old Salamano on the doorstep; he seemed very excited. I noticed that his dog wasn’t with him. He was turning like a teetotum, looking in all directions, and sometimes peering into the darkness of the hall with his little bloodshot eyes. Then he’d mutter something to himself and start gazing up and down the street again.
Raymond asked him what was wrong, but he didn’t answer at once. Then I heard him grunt, “The bastard! The filthy cur!” When I asked him where his dog was, he scowled at me and snapped out, “Gone!” A moment later, all of a sudden, he launched out into it.
“I’d taken him to the Parade Ground as usual. There was a fair on, and you could hardly move for the crowd. I stopped at one of the booths to look at the Handcuff King. When I turned to go, the dog was gone. I’d been meaning to get a smaller collar, but I never thought the brute could slip it and get away like that.”
Raymond assured him the dog would find its way home, and told him stories of dogs that had traveled miles and miles to get back to their masters. But this seemed to make the old fellow even more worried than before.
“Don’t you understand, they’ll do away with him; the police, I mean. It’s not likely anyone will take him in and look after him; with all those scabs he puts everybody off.”
I told him that there was a pound at the police station, where stray dogs are taken. His dog was certain to be there and he could get it back on payment of a small charge. He asked me how much the charge was, but there I couldn’t help him. Then he flew into a rage again.
“Is it likely I’d give money for a mutt like that? No damned fear! They can kill him, for all I care.” And he went on calling his dog the usual names.
Raymond gave a laugh and turned into the hall. I followed him upstairs, and we parted on the landing. A minute or two later I heard Salamano’s footsteps and a knock on my door.
When I opened it, he halted for a moment in the doorway.
“Excuse me … I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
I asked him in, but he shook his head. He was staring at his toe caps, and the gnarled old hands were trembling. Without meeting my eyes, he started talking.
“They won’t really take him from me, will they, Monsieur Meursault? Surely they wouldn’t do a thing like that. If they do—I don’t know what will become of me.”
I told him that, so far as I knew, they kept stray dogs in the pound for three days, waiting for their owners to call for them. After that they disposed of the dogs as they thought fit.
He stared at me in silence for a moment, then said, “Good evening.” After that I heard him pacing up and down his room for quite a while. Then his bed creaked. Through the wall there came to me a little wheezing sound, and I guessed that he was weeping. For some reason, I don’t know what, I began thinking of Mother. But I had to get up early next day; so, as I wasn’t feeling hungry, I did without supper, and went straight to bed.
RAYMOND rang me up at the office. He said that a friend of his—to whom he’d spoken about me—invited me to spend next Sunday at his little seaside bungalow just outside Algiers. I told him I’d have been delighted; only I had promised to spend Sunday with a girl. Raymond promptly replied that she could come, too. In fact, his friend’s wife would be very pleased not to be the only woman in a party of men.
I’d have liked to hang up at once, as my employer doesn’t approve of my using the office phone for private calls. But Raymond asked me to hold on; he had something else to tell me, and that was why he’d rung me up, though he could have waited till the evening to pass on the invitation.
“It’s like this,” he said. “I’ve been shadowed all the morning by some Arabs. One of them’s the brother of that girl I had the row with. If you see him hanging round the house when you come back, pass me the word.”
I promised to do so.
Just then my employer sent for me. For a moment I felt uneasy, as I expected he was going to tell me to stick to my work and not waste time chattering with friends over the phone. However, it was nothing of the kind. He wanted to discuss a project he had in view, though so far he’d come to no decision. It was to open a branch at Paris, so as to be able to deal with the big companies on the spot, without postal delays, and he wanted to know if I’d like a post there.
“You’re a young man,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy living in Paris. And, of course, you could travel about France for some months in the year.”
I told him I was quite prepared to go; but really I didn’t care much one way or the other.
He then asked if a “change of life,” as he called it, didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well.
At this he looked rather hurt, and told me that I always shilly-shallied, and that I lacked ambition—a grave defect, to his mind, when one was in business.
I returned to my work. I’d have preferred not to vex him, but I saw no reason for “changing my life.” By and large it wasn’t an unpleasant one. As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant. But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realized all that was pretty futile.
Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.
Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing—but I supposed I didn’t.
“If that’s how you feel,” she said, “why marry me?”
I explained that it had no importance really, but, if it would give her pleasure, we could get married right away. I pointed out that, anyhow, the suggestion came from her; as for me, I’d merely said, “Yes.”
Then she remarked that marriage was a serious matter.
To which I answered: “No.”
She kept silent after that, staring at me in a curious way. Then she asked:
“Suppose another girl had asked you to marry her—I mean, a girl you liked in the same way as you like me—would you have said ‘Yes’ to her, too?”
Then she said she wondered if she really loved me or not. I, of course, couldn’t enlighten her as to that. And, after another silence, she murmured something about my being “a queer fellow.” “And I daresay that’s why I love you,” she added. “But maybe that’s why one day I’ll come to hate you.”
To which I had nothing to say, so I said nothing.
She thought for a bit, then started smiling and, taking my arm, repeated that she was in earnest; she really wanted to marry me.
“All right,” I answered. “We’ll get married whenever you like.” I then mentioned the proposal made by my employer, and Marie said she’d love to go to Paris.
When I told her I’d lived in Paris for a while, she asked me what it was like.
“A dingy sort of town, to my mind. Masses of pigeons and dark courtyards. And the people have washed-out, white faces.”
Then we went for a walk all the way across the town by the main streets. The women were good-lookers, and I asked Marie if she, too, noticed this. She said, “Yes,” and that she saw what I meant. After that we said nothing for some minutes. However, as I didn’t want her to leave me, I suggested we should dine together at Céleste’s. She’d have loved to dine with me, she said, only she was booked up for the evening. We were near my place, and I said, “Au revoir, then.”
She looked me in the eyes.
“Don’t you want to know what I’m doing this evening?”
I did want to know, but I hadn’t thought of asking her, and I guessed she was making a grievance of it. I must have looked embarrassed, for suddenly she started laughing and bent toward me, pouting her lips for a kiss.
I went by myself to Céleste’s. When I had just started my dinner an odd-looking little woman came in and asked if she might sit at my table. Of course she might. She had a chubby face like a ripe apple, bright eyes, and moved in a curiously jerky way, as if she were on wires. After taking off her closefitting jacket she sat down and started studying the bill of fare with a sort of rapt attention. Then she called Céleste and gave her order, very fast but quite distinctly; one didn’t lose a word. While waiting for the hors d’oeuvre she opened her bag, took out a slip of paper and a pencil, and added up the bill in advance. Diving into her bag again, she produced a purse and took from it the exact sum, plus a small tip, and placed it on the cloth in front of her.
Just then the waiter brought the hors d’oeuvre, which she proceeded to wolf down voraciously. While waiting for the next course, she produced another pencil, this time a blue one, from her bag, and the radio magazine for the coming week, and started making ticks against almost all the items of the daily programs. There were a dozen pages in the magazine, and she continued studying them closely throughout the meal. When I’d finished mine she was still ticking off items with the same meticulous attention. Then she rose, put on her jacket again with the same abrupt, robot-like gestures, and walked briskly out of the restaurant.
Having nothing better to do, I followed her for a short distance. Keeping on the curb of the pavement, she walked straight ahead, never swerving or looking back, and it was extraordinary how fast she covered the ground, considering her smallness. In fact, the pace was too much for me, and I soon lost sight of her and turned back homeward. For a moment the “little robot” (as I thought of her) had much impressed me, but I soon forgot about her.
As I was turning in at my door I ran into old Salamano. I asked him into my room, and he informed me that his dog was definitely lost. He’d been to the pound to inquire, but it wasn’t there, and the staff told him it had probably been run over. When he asked them whether it was any use inquiring about it at the police station, they said the police had more important things to attend to than keeping records of stray dogs run over in the streets. I suggested he should get another dog, but, reasonably enough, he pointed out that he’d become used to this one, and it wouldn’t be the same thing.
I was seated on my bed, with my legs up, and Salamano on a chair beside the table, facing me, his hands spread on his knees. He had kept on his battered felt hat and was mumbling away behind his draggled yellowish mustache. I found him rather boring, but I had nothing to do and didn’t feel sleepy. So, to keep the conversation going, I asked some questions about his dog—how long he had had it and so forth. He told me he had got it soon after his wife’s death. He’d married rather late in life. When a young man, he wanted to go on the stage; during his military service he’d often played in the regimental theatricals and acted rather well, so everybody said. However, finally, he had taken a job in the railway, and he didn’t regret it, as now he had a small pension. He and his wife had never hit it off very well, but they’d got used to each other, and when she died he felt lonely. One of his mates on the railway whose bitch had just had pups had offered him one, and he had taken it, as a companion. He’d had to feed it from the bottle at first. But, as a dog’s life is shorter than a man’s, they’d grown old together, so to speak.
“He was a cantankerous brute,” Salamano said. “Now and then we had some proper set-tos, he and I. But he was a good mutt all the same.”
I said he looked well bred, and that evidently pleased the old man.
“Ah, but you should have seen him before his illness!” he said. “He had a wonderful coat; in fact, that was his best point, really. I tried hard to cure him; every mortal night after he got that skin disease I rubbed an ointment in. But his real trouble was old age, and there’s no curing that.”
Just then I yawned, and the old man said he’d better make a move. I told him he could stay, and that I was sorry about what had happened to his dog. He thanked me, and mentioned that my mother had been very fond of his dog. He referred to her as “your poor mother,” and was afraid I must be feeling her death terribly. When I said nothing he added hastily and with a rather embarrassed air that some of the people in the street said nasty things about me because I’d sent my mother to the Home. But he, of course, knew better; he knew how devoted to my mother I had always been.
I answered—why, I still don’t know—that it surprised me to learn I’d produced such a bad impression. As I couldn’t afford to keep her here, it seemed the obvious thing to do, to send her to a home. “In any case,” I added, “for years she’d never had a word to say to me, and I could see she was moping, with no one to talk to.”
“Yes,” he said, “and at a home one makes friends, anyhow.”
He got up, saying it was high time for him to be in bed, and added that life was going to be a bit of a problem for him, under the new conditions. For the first time since I’d known him he held out his hand to me—rather shyly, I thought—and I could feel the scales on his skin. Just as he was going out of the door, he turned and, smiling a little, said:
“Let’s hope the dogs won’t bark again tonight. I always think it’s mine I hear. …”
IT was an effort waking up that Sunday morning; Marie had to jog my shoulders and shout my name. As we wanted to get into the water early, we didn’t trouble about breakfast. My head was aching slightly and my first cigarette had a bitter taste. Marie told me I looked like a mourner at a funeral, and I certainly did feel very limp. She was wearing a white dress and had her hair loose. I told her she looked quite ravishing like that, and she laughed happily.
On our way out we banged on Raymond’s door, and he shouted that he’d be with us in a jiffy. We went down to the street and, because of my being rather under the weather and our having kept the blind down in my room, the glare of the morning sun hit me in the eyes like a clenched fist.
Marie, however, was almost dancing with delight, and kept repeating, “What a heavenly day!” After a few minutes I was feeling better, and noticed that I was hungry. I mentioned this to Marie, but she paid no attention. She was carrying an oilcloth bag in which she had stowed our bathing kit and a towel. Presently we heard Raymond shutting his door. He was wearing blue trousers, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a straw hat. I noticed that his forearms were rather hairy, but the skin was very white beneath. The straw hat made Marie giggle. Personally, I was rather put off by his getup. He seemed in high spirits and was whistling as he came down the stairs. He greeted me with, “Hello, old boy!” and addressed Marie as “Mademoiselle.”
On the previous evening we had visited the police station, where I gave evidence for Raymond—about the girl’s having been false to him. So they let him off with a warning. They didn’t check my statement.
After some talk on the doorstep we decided to take the bus. The beach was within easy walking distance, but the sooner we got there the better. Just as we were starting for the bus stop, Raymond plucked my sleeve and told me to look across the street. I saw some Arabs lounging against the tobacconist’s window. They were staring at us silently, in the special way these people have—as if we were blocks of stone or dead trees. Raymond whispered that the second Arab from the left was “his man,” and I thought he looked rather worried However, he assured me that all that was ancient history. Marie, who hadn’t followed his remarks, asked, “What is it?”
I explained that those Arabs across the way had a grudge against Raymond. She insisted on our going at once. Then Raymond laughed, and squared his shoulders. The young lady was quite right, he said. There was no point in hanging about here. Halfway to the bus stop he glanced back over his shoulder and said the Arabs weren’t following. I, too, looked back. They were exactly as before, gazing in the same vague way at the spot where we had been.
When we were in the bus, Raymond, who now seemed quite at ease, kept making jokes to amuse Marie. I could see he was attracted by her, but she had hardly a word for him. Now and again she would catch my eye and smile.
We alighted just outside Algiers. The beach is not far from the bus stop; one has only to cross a patch of highland, a sort of plateau, which overlooks the sea and shelves down steeply to the sands. The ground here was covered with yellowish pebbles and wild lilies that showed snow-white against the blue of the sky, which had already the hard, metallic glint it gets on very hot days. Marie amused herself swishing her bag against the flowers and sending the petals showering in all directions. Then we walked between two rows of little houses with wooden balconies and green or white palings. Some of them were half hidden in clumps of tamarisks; others rose naked from the stony plateau. Before we came to the end of it, the sea was in full view; it lay smooth as a mirror, and in the distance a big headland jutted out over its black reflection. Through the still air came the faint buzz of a motor engine and we saw a fishing boat very far out, gliding almost imperceptibly across the dazzling smoothness.
Marie picked some rock irises. Going down the steep path leading to the sea, we saw some bathers already on the sands.
Raymond’s friend owned a small wooden bungalow at the near end of the beach. Its back rested against the cliffside, while the front stood on piles, which the water was already lapping. Raymond introduced us to his friend, whose name was Masson. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and thick-set; his wife was a plump, cheerful little woman who spoke with a Paris accent.
Masson promptly told us to make ourselves at home. He had gone out fishing, he said, first thing in the morning, and there would be fried fish for lunch. I congratulated him on his little bungalow, and he said he always spent his week ends and holidays here. “With the missus, needless to say,” he added. I glanced at her, and noticed that she and Marie seemed to be getting on well together; laughing and chattering away. For the first time, perhaps, I seriously considered the possibility of my marrying her.
Masson wanted to have a swim at once, but his wife and Raymond were disinclined to move. So only the three of us, Marie, Masson, and myself, went down to the beach. Marie promptly plunged in, but Masson and I waited for a bit. He was rather slow of speech and had, I noticed, a habit of saying “and what’s more” between his phrases—even when the second added nothing really to the first. Talking of Marie, he said: “She’s an awfully pretty girl, and what’s more, charming.”
But I soon ceased paying attention to this trick of his; I was basking in the sunlight, which, I noticed, was making me feel much better. The sand was beginning to stoke up underfoot and, though I was eager for a dip, I postponed it for a minute or two more. At last I said to Masson: “Shall we go in now?” and plunged. Masson walked in gingerly and only began to swim when he was out of his depth. He swam hand over hand and made slow headway, so I left him behind and caught up with Marie. The water was cold and I felt all the better for it. We swam a long way out, Marie and I, side by side, and it was pleasant feeling how our movements matched, hers and mine, and how we were both in the same mood, enjoying every moment.
Once we were out in the open, we lay on our backs and, as I gazed up at the sky, I could feel the sun drawing up the film of salt water on my lips and cheeks. We saw Masson swim back to the beach and slump down on the sand under the sun. In the distance he looked enormous, like a stranded whale. Then Marie proposed that we should swim tandem. She went ahead and I put my arms round her waist, from behind, and while she drew me forward with her arm strokes, I kicked out behind to help us on.
That sound of little splashes had been in my ears for so long that I began to feel I’d had enough of it. So I let go of Marie and swam back at an easy pace, taking long, deep breaths. When I made the beach I stretched myself belly downward beside Masson, resting my face on the sand. I told him “it was fine” here, and he agreed. Presently Marie came back. I raised my head to watch her approach. She was glistening with brine and holding her hair back. Then she lay down beside me, and what with the combined warmth of our bodies and the sun, I felt myself dropping off to sleep.
After a while Marie tugged my arm. and said Masson had gone to his place; it must be nearly lunchtime. I rose at once, as I was feeling hungry, but Marie told me I hadn’t kissed her once since the early morning. That was so—though I’d wanted to, several times. “Let’s go into the water again,” she said, and we ran into the sea and lay flat amongst the ripples for a moment. Then we swam a few strokes, and when we were almost out of our depth she flung her arms round me and hugged me. I felt her legs twining round mine, and my senses tingled.
When we got back, Masson was on the steps of his bungalow, shouting to us to come. I told him I was ravenously hungry, and he promptly turned to his wife and said he’d taken quite a fancy to me. The bread was excellent, and I had my full share of the fish. Then came some steak and potato chips. None of us spoke while eating. Masson drank a lot of wine and kept refilling my glass the moment it was empty. By the time coffee was handed round I was feeling slightly muzzy, and I started smoking one cigarette after another. Masson, Raymond, and I discussed a plan of spending the whole of August on the beach together, sharing expenses.
Suddenly Marie exclaimed: “I say! Do you know the time? It’s only half-past eleven!”
We were all surprised at that, and Masson remarked that we’d had a very early lunch, but really lunch was a movable feast, you had it when you felt like it.
This set Marie laughing, I don’t know why. I suspect she’d drunk a bit too much.
Then Masson asked if I’d like to come with him for a stroll on the beach.
“My wife always has a nap after lunch,” he said. “Personally I find it doesn’t agree with me; what I need is a short walk. I’m always telling her it’s much better for the health. But, of course, she’s entitled to her own opinion.”
Marie proposed to stay and help with the washing up. Mme Masson smiled and said that, in that case, the first thing was to get the men out of the way. So we went out together, the three of us.
The light was almost vertical and the glare from the water seared one’s eyes. The beach was quite deserted now. One could hear a faint tinkle of knives and forks and crockery in the shacks and bungalows lining the foreshore. Heat was welling up from the rocks, and one could hardly breathe.
At first Raymond and Masson talked of things and people I didn’t know. I gathered that they’d been acquainted for some time and had even lived together for a while. We went down to the water’s edge and walked along it; now and then a longer wave wet our canvas shoes. I wasn’t thinking of anything, as all that sunlight beating down on my bare head made me feel half asleep.
Just then Raymond said something to Masson that I didn’t quite catch. But at the same moment I noticed two Arabs in blue dungarees a long way down the beach, coming in our direction. I gave Raymond a look and he nodded, saying, “That’s him.” We walked steadily on. Masson wondered how they’d managed to track us here. My impression was that they had seen us taking the bus and noticed Marie’s oilcloth bathing bag; but I didn’t say anything.
Though the Arabs walked quite slowly, they were much nearer already. We didn’t change our pace, but Raymond said:
“Listen! If there’s a roughhouse, you, Masson, take on the second one. I’ll tackle the fellow who’s after me. And you, Meursault, stand by to help if another one comes up, and lay him out.”
I said, “Right,” and Masson put his hands in his pockets.
The sand was as hot as fire, and I could have sworn it was glowing red. The distance between us and the Arabs was steadily decreasing. When we were only a few steps away the Arabs halted. Masson and I slowed down, while Raymond went straight up to his man. I couldn’t hear what he said, but I saw the native lowering his head, as if to butt him in the chest. Raymond lashed out promptly and shouted to Masson to come. Masson went up to the man he had been marking and struck him twice with all his might. The fellow fell flat into the water and stayed there some seconds with bubbles coming up to the surface round his head. Meanwhile Raymond had been slogging the other man, whose face was streaming with blood. He glanced at me over his shoulder and shouted:
“Just you watch! I ain’t finished with him yet!”
“Look out!” I cried. “He’s got a knife.”
I spoke too late. The man had gashed Raymond’s arm and his mouth as well.
Masson sprang forward. The other Arab got up from the water and placed himself behind the fellow with the knife. We didn’t dare to move. The two natives backed away slowly, keeping us at bay with the knife and never taking their eyes off us. When they were at a safe distance they swung round and took to their heels. We stood stock-still, with the sunlight beating down on us. Blood was dripping from Raymond’s wounded arm, which he was squeezing hard above the elbow.
Masson remarked that there was a doctor who always spent his Sundays here, and Raymond said: “Good. Let’s go to him at once.” He could hardly get the words out, as the blood from his other wound made bubbles in his mouth.
We each gave him an arm and helped him back to the bungalow. Once we were there he told us the wounds weren’t so very deep and he could walk to where the doctor was. Marie had gone quite pale, and Mme Masson was in tears.
Masson and Raymond went off to the doctor’s while I was left behind at the bungalow to explain matters to the women. I didn’t much relish the task and soon dried up and started smoking, staring at the sea.
Raymond came back at about half-past one, accompanied by Masson. He had his arm bandaged and a strip of sticking plaster on the corner of his mouth. The doctor had assured him it was nothing serious, but he was looking very glum. Masson tried to make him laugh, but without success.
Presently Raymond said he was going for a stroll on the beach. I asked him where he proposed to go, and he mumbled something about “wanting to take the air.” We—Masson and I—then said we’d go with him, but he flew into a rage and told us to mind our own business. Masson said we mustn’t insist, seeing the state he was in. However, when he went out, I followed him.
It was like a furnace outside, with the sunlight splintering into flakes of fire on the sand and sea. We walked for quite a while, and I had an idea that Raymond had a definite idea where he was going; but probably I was mistaken about this.
At the end of the beach we came to a small stream that had cut a channel in the sand, after coming out from behind a biggish rock. There we found our two Arabs again, lying on the sand in their blue dungarees. They looked harmless enough, as if they didn’t bear any malice, and neither made any move when we approached. The man who had slashed Raymond stared at him without speaking. The other man was blowing down a little reed and extracting from it three notes of the scale, which he played over and over again, while he watched us from the corner of an eye.
For a while nobody moved; it was all sunlight and silence except for the tinkle of the stream and those three little lonely sounds. Then Raymond put his hand to his revolver pocket, but the Arabs still didn’t move. I noticed the man playing on the reed had his big toes splayed out almost at right angles to his feet.
Still keeping his eyes on his man, Raymond said to me: “Shall I plug him one?”
36 Albert Camus THE STRANGER
I thought quickly. If I told him not to, considering the mood he was in, he might very well fly into a temper and use his gun. So I said the first thing that came into my head.
“He hasn’t spoken to you yet. It would be a lowdown trick to shoot him like that, in cold blood.”
Again, for some moments one heard nothing but the tinkle of the stream and the flute notes weaving through the hot, still air.
“Well,” Raymond said at last, “if that’s how you feel, I’d better say something insulting, and if he answers back I’ll loose off.”
“Right,” I said. “Only, if he doesn’t get out his knife you’ve no business to fire.”
Raymond was beginning to fidget. The Arab with the reed went on playing, and both of them watched all our movements.
“Listen,” I said to Raymond. “You take on the fellow on the right, and give me your revolver. If the other one starts making trouble or gets out his knife, I’ll shoot.”
The sun glinted on Raymond’s revolver as he handed it to me. But nobody made a move yet; it was just as if everything had closed in on us so that we couldn’t stir. We could only watch each other, never lowering our eyes; the whole world seemed to have come to a standstill on this little strip of sand between the sunlight and the sea, the twofold silence of the reed and stream. And just then it crossed my mind that one might fire, or not fire—and it would come to absolutely the same thing.
Then, all of a sudden, the Arabs vanished; they’d slipped like lizards under cover of the rock. So Raymond and I turned and walked back. He seemed happier, and began talking about the bus to catch for our return.
When we reached the bungalow Raymond promptly went up the wooden steps, but I halted on the bottom one. The light seemed thudding in my head and I couldn’t face the effort needed to go up the steps and make myself amiable to the women. But the heat was so great that it was just as bad staying where I was, under that flood of blinding light falling from the sky. To stay, or to make a move—it came to much the same. After a moment I returned to the beach, and started walking.
There was the same red glare as far as eye could reach, and small waves were lapping the hot sand in little, flurried gasps. As I slowly walked toward the boulders at the end of the beach I could feel my temples swelling under the impact of the light. It pressed itself on me, trying to check my progress. And each time I felt a hot blast strike my forehead, I gritted my teeth, I clenched my fists in my trouser pockets and keyed up every nerve to fend off the sun and the dark befuddlement it was pouring into me. Whenever a blade of vivid light shot upward from a bit of shell or broken glass lying on the sand, my jaws set hard. I wasn’t going to be beaten, and I walked steadily on.
The small black hump of rock came into view far down the beach. It was rimmed by a dazzling sheen of light and feathery spray, but I was thinking of the cold, clear
stream behind it, and longing to hear again the tinkle of running water. Anything to be rid of the glare, the sight of women in tears, the strain and effort—and to retrieve the pool of shadow by the rock and its cool silence!
But when I came nearer I saw that Raymond’s Arab had returned. He was by himself this time, lying on his back, his hands behind his head, his face shaded by the rock while the sun beat on the rest of his body. One could see his dungarees steaming in the heat. I was rather taken aback; my impression had been that the incident was closed, and I hadn’t given a thought to it on my way here.
On seeing me, the Arab raised himself a little, and his hand went to his pocket. Naturally, I gripped Raymond’s revolver in the pocket of my coat. Then the Arab let himself sink back again, but without taking his hand from his pocket. I was some distance off, at least ten yards, and most of the time I saw him as a blurred dark form wobbling in the heat haze. Sometimes, however, I had glimpses of his eyes glowing between the half-closed lids. The sound of the waves was even lazier, feebler, than at noon. But the light hadn’t changed; it was pounding as fiercely as ever on the long stretch of sand that ended at the rock. For two hours the sun seemed to have made no progress; becalmed in a sea of molten steel. Far out on the horizon a steamer was passing; I could just make out from the corner of an eye the small black moving patch, while I kept my gaze fixed on the Arab.
It struck me that all I had to do was to turn, walk away, and think no more about it. But the whole beach, pulsing with heat, was pressing on my back. I took some steps toward the stream. The Arab didn’t move. After all, there was still some distance between us. Perhaps because of the shadow on his face, he seemed to be grinning at me.
I waited. The heat was beginning to scorch my cheeks; beads of sweat were gathering in my eyebrows. It was just the same sort of heat as at my mother’s funeral, and I had the same disagreeable sensations—especially in my forehead, where all the veins seemed to be bursting through the skin. I couldn’t stand it any longer, and took another step forward. I knew it was a fool thing to do; I wouldn’t get out of the sun by moving on a yard or so. But I took that step, just one step, forward. And then the Arab drew his knife and held it up toward me, athwart the sunlight.
A shaft of light shot upward from the steel, and I felt as if a long, thin blade transfixed my forehead. At the same moment all the sweat that had accumulated in my eyebrows splashed down on my eyelids, covering them with a warm film of moisture. Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.
Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift. Every nerve in my body was a steel spring, and my grip closed on the revolver. The trigger gave, and the smooth underbelly of the butt jogged my palm. And so, with that crisp, whipcrack sound, it all began. I shook off my sweat and the clinging veil of light. I knew I’d shattered the balance of the day, the spacious calm of this beach on which I had been happy. But I fired four shots more into the inert body, on which they left no visible trace. And each successive shot was another loud, fateful rap on the door of my undoing.
I was questioned several times immediately after my arrest. But they were all formal examinations, as to my identity and so forth. At the first of these, which took place at the police station, nobody seemed to have much interest in the case. However, when I was brought before the examining magistrate a week later, I noticed that he eyed me with distinct curiosity. Like the others, he began by asking my name, address, and occupation, the date and place of my birth. Then he inquired if I had chosen a lawyer to defend me. I answered, “No,” I hadn’t thought about it, and asked him if it was really necessary for me to have one.
“Why do you ask that?” he said. I replied that I regarded my case as very simple. He smiled. “Well, it may seem so to you. But we’ve got to abide by the law, and, if you don’t engage a lawyer, the court will have to appoint one for you.”
It struck me as an excellent arrangement that the authorities should see to details of this kind, and I told him so. He nodded, and agreed that the Code was all that could be desired.
At first I didn’t take him quite seriously. The room in which he interviewed me was much like an ordinary sitting room, with curtained windows, and a single lamp standing on the desk. Its light fell on the armchair in which he’d had me sit, while his own face stayed in shadow.
I had read descriptions of such scenes in books, and at first it all seemed like a game. After our conversation, however, I had a good look at him. He was a tall man with clean-cut features, deep-set blue eyes, a big gray mustache, and abundant, almost snow-white hair, and he gave me the impression of being highly intelligent and, on the whole, likable enough. There was only one thing that put one off: his mouth had now and then a rather ugly twist; but it seemed to be only a sort of nervous tic. When leaving, I very nearly held out my hand and said, “Good-by”; just in time I remembered that I’d killed a man.
Next day a lawyer came to my cell; a small, plump, youngish man with sleek black hair. In spite of the heat—I was in my shirt sleeves—he was wearing a dark suit, stiff collar, and a rather showy tie, with broad black and white stripes. After depositing his brief case on my bed, he introduced himself, and added that he’d perused the record of my case with the utmost care. His opinion was that it would need cautious handling, but there was every prospect of my getting off, provided I followed his advice. I thanked him, and he said: “Good. Now let’s get down to it.”
Sitting on the bed, he said that they’d been making investigations into my private life. They had learned that my mother died recently in a home. Inquiries had been conducted at Marengo and the police informed that I’d shown “great callousness” at my mother’s funeral.
“You must understand,” the lawyer said, “that I don’t relish having to question you about such a matter. But it has much importance, and, unless I find some way of answering the charge of ‘callousness,’ I shall be handicapped in conducting your defense. And that is where you, and only you, can help me.”
He went on to ask if I had felt grief on that “sad occasion.” The question struck me as an odd one; I’d have been much embarrassed if I’d had to ask anyone a thing like that.
I answered that, of recent years, I’d rather lost the habit of noting my feelings, and hardly knew what to answer. I could truthfully say I’d been quite fond of Mother—but really that didn’t mean much. All normal people, I added as on afterthought, had more or less desired the death of those they loved, at some time or another.
Here the lawyer interrupted me, looking greatly perturbed.
“You must promise me not to say anything of that sort at the trial, or to the examining magistrate.”
I promised, to satisfy him, but I explained that my physical condition at any given moment often influenced my feelings. For instance, on the day I attended Mother’s funeral, I was fagged out and only half awake. So, really, I hardly took stock of what was happening. Anyhow, I could assure him of one thing: that I’d rather Mother hadn’t died.
The lawyer, however, looked displeased. “That’s not enough,” he said curtly.
After considering for a bit he asked me if he could say that on that day I had kept my feelings under control.
“No,” I said. “That wouldn’t be true.”
He gave me a queer look, as if I slightly revolted him; then informed me, in an almost hostile tone, that in any case the head of the Home and some of the staff would be cited as witnesses.
“And that might do you a very nasty turn,” he concluded.
When I suggested that Mother’s death had no connection with the charge against me, he merely replied that this remark showed I’d never had any dealings with the law.
Soon after this he left, looking quite vexed. I wished he had stayed longer and I could have explained that I desired his sympathy, not for him to make a better job of my defense, but, if I might put it so, spontaneously. I could see that I got on his nerves; he couldn’t make me out, and, naturally enough, this irritated him. Once or twice I had a mind to assure him that I was just like everybody else; quite an ordinary person. But really that would have served no great purpose, and I let it go—out of laziness as much as anything else.
Later in the day I was taken again to the examining magistrate’s office. It was two in the afternoon and, this time, the room was flooded with light—there was only a thin curtain on the window—and extremely hot.
After inviting me to sit down, the magistrate informed me in a very polite tone that, “owing to unforeseen circumstances,” my lawyer was unable to be present. I should be quite entitled, he added, to reserve my answers to his questions until my lawyer could attend.
To this I replied that I could answer for myself. He pressed a bell push on his desk and a young clerk came in and seated himself just behind me. Then we—I and the magistrate—settled back in our chairs and the examination began. He led off by remarking that I had the reputation of being a taciturn, rather self-centered person, and he’d like to know what I had to say to that. I answered:
“Well, I rarely have anything much to say. So, naturally I keep my mouth shut.”
He smiled as on the previous occasion, and agreed that that was the best of reasons. “In any case,” he added, “it has little or no importance.”
After a short silence he suddenly leaned forward, looked me in the eyes, and said, raising his voice a little:
“What really interests me is—you!”
I wasn’t quite clear what he meant, so I made no comment.
“There are several things,” he continued, “that puzzle me about your crime. I feel sure that you will help me to understand them.”
When I replied that really it was quite simple, he asked me to give him an account of what I’d done that day. As a matter of fact, I had already told him at our first interview—in a summary sort of way, of course—about Raymond, the beach, our swim, the fight, then the beach again, and the five shots I’d fired. But I went over it all again, and after each phrase he nodded. “Quite so, quite so.” When I described the body lying on the sand, he nodded more emphatically, and said, “Good!” I was tired of repeating the same story; I felt as if I’d never talked so much in all my life before.
After another silence he stood up and said he’d like to help me; I interested him, and, with God’s help, he would do something for me in my trouble. But, first, he must put a few more questions.
He began by asking bluntly if I’d loved my mother.
“Yes,” I replied, “like everybody else.” The clerk behind me, who had been typing away at a steady pace, must just then have hit the wrong keys, as I heard him pushing the carrier back and crossing something out.
Next, without any apparent logical connection, the magistrate sprang another question.
“Why did you fire five consecutive shots?”
I thought for a bit; then explained that they weren’t quite consecutive. I fired one at first, and the other four after a short interval.
“Why did you pause between the first and second shot?”
I seemed to see it hovering again before my eyes, the red glow of the beach, and to feel that fiery breath on my cheeks—and, this time, I made no answer.
During the silence that followed, the magistrate kept fidgeting, running his fingers through his hair, half rising, then sitting down again. Finally, planting his elbows on the desk, he bent toward me with a queer expression.
“But why, why did you go on firing at a prostrate man?”
Again I found nothing to reply.
The magistrate drew his hand across his forehead and repeated in a slightly different tone:
“I ask you ‘Why?’ I insist on your telling me.” I still kept silent.
Suddenly he rose, walked to a file cabinet standing against the opposite wall, pulled a drawer open, and took from it a silver crucifix, which he was waving as he came back to the desk.
“Do you know who this is?” His voice had changed completely; it was vibrant with emotion.
“Of course I do,” I answered.
That seemed to start him off; he began speaking at a great pace. He told me he believed in God, and that even the worst of sinners could obtain forgiveness of Him. But first he must repent, and become like a little child, with a simple, trustful heart, open to conviction. He was leaning right across the table, brandishing his crucifix before my eyes.
As a matter of fact, I had great difficulty in following his remarks, as, for one thing, the office was so stiflingly hot and big flies were buzzing round and settling on my cheeks; also because he rather alarmed me. Of course, I realized it was absurd to feel like this, considering that, after all, it was I who was the criminal. However, as he continued talking, I did my best to understand, and I gathered that there was only one point in my confession that badly needed clearing up—the fact that I’d waited before firing a second time. All the rest was, so to speak, quite in order; but that completely baffled him.
I started to tell him that he was wrong in insisting on this; the point was of quite minor importance. But, before I could get the words out, he had drawn himself up to his full height and was asking me very earnestly if I believed in God. When I said, “No,” he plumped down into his chair indignantly.
That was unthinkable, he said; all men believe in God, even those who reject Him. Of this he was absolutely sure; if ever he came to doubt it, his life would lose all meaning. “Do you wish,” he asked indignantly, “my life to have no meaning?” Really I couldn’t see how my wishes came into it, and I told him as much.
While I was talking, he thrust the crucifix again just under my nose and shouted: “I, anyhow, am a Christian. And I pray Him to forgive you for your sins. My poor young man, how can you not believe that He suffered for your sake?”
I noticed that his manner seemed genuinely solicitous when he said, “My poor young man”—but I was beginning to have enough of it. The room was growing steadily hotter.
As I usually do when I want to get rid of someone whose conversation bores me, I pretended to agree. At which, rather to my surprise, his face lit up.
“You see! You see! Now won’t you own that you believe and put your trust in Him?”
I must have shaken my head again, for he sank back in his chair, looking limp and dejected.
For some moments there was a silence during which the typewriter, which had been clicking away all the time we talked, caught up with the last remark. Then he looked at me intently and rather sadly.
“Never in all my experience have I known a soul so case-hardened as yours,” he said in a low tone. “All the criminals who have come before me until now wept when they saw this symbol of our Lord’s sufferings.”
I was on the point of replying that was precisely because they were criminals. But then I realized that I, too, came under that description. Somehow it was an idea to which I never could get reconciled.
To indicate, presumably, that the interview was over, the magistrate stood up. In the same weary tone he asked me a last question: Did I regret what I had done?
After thinking a bit, I said that what I felt was less regret than a kind of vexation—I couldn’t find a better word for it. But he didn’t seem to understand. … This was as far as things went at that day’s interview.
I came before the magistrate many times more, but on these occasions my lawyer always accompanied me. The examinations were confined to asking me to amplify my previous statements. Or else the magistrate and my lawyer discussed technicalities. At such times they took very little notice of me, and, in any case, the tone of the examinations changed as time went on. The magistrate seemed to have lost interest in me, and to have come to some sort-of decision about my case. He never mentioned God again or displayed any of the religious fervor I had found so embarrassing at our first interview. The result was that our relations became more cordial. After a few questions, followed by an exchange of remarks with the lawyer, the magistrate closed the interview. My case was “taking its course,” as he put it. Sometimes, too, the conversation was of a general order, and the magistrate and lawyer encouraged me to join in it. I began to breathe more freely. Neither of the two men, at these times, showed the least hostility toward me, and everything went so smoothly, so amiably, that I had an absurd impression of being “one of the family.” I can honestly say that during the eleven months these examinations lasted I got so used to them that I was almost surprised at having ever enjoyed anything better than those rare moments when the magistrate, after escorting me to the door of the office, would pat my shoulder and say in a friendly tone: “Well, Mr. Antichrist, that’s all for the present!” After which I was made over to my jailers.
THERE are some things of which I’ve never cared to talk. And, a few days after I’d been sent to prison, I decided that this phase of my life was one of them. However, as time went by, I came to feel that this aversion had no real substance. In point of fact, during those early days, I was hardly conscious of being in prison; I had always a vague hope that something would turn up, some agreeable surprise.
The change came soon after Marie’s first and only visit. From the day when I got her letter telling me they wouldn’t let her come to see me any more, because she wasn’t my wife—it was from that day that I realized that this cell was my last home, a dead end, so to speak.
On the day of my arrest they put me in a biggish room with several other prisoners, mostly Arabs. They grinned when they saw me enter, and asked me what I’d done. I told them I’d killed an Arab, and they kept mum for a while. But presently night began to fall, and one of them explained to me how to lay out my sleeping mat. By rolling up one end one makes a sort of bolster. All night I felt bugs crawling over my face.
Some days later I was put by myself in a cell, where I slept on a plank bed hinged to the wall. The only other furniture was a latrine bucket and a tin basin. The prison stands on rising ground, and through my little window I had glimpses of the sea. One day when I was hanging on the bars, straining my eyes toward the sunlight playing on the waves, a jailer entered and said I had a visitor. I thought it must be Marie, and so it was.
To go to the Visitors’ Room, I was taken along a corridor, then up a flight of steps, then along another corridor. It was a very large room, lit by a big bow window, and divided into three compartments by high iron grilles running transversally. Between the two grilles there was a gap of some thirty feet, a sort of no man’s land between the prisoners and their friends. I was led to a point exactly opposite Marie, who was wearing her striped dress. On my side of the rails were about a dozen other prisoners, Arabs for the most part. On Marie’s side were mostly Moorish women. She was wedged between a small old woman with tight-set lips and a fat matron, without a hat, who was talking shrilly and gesticulated all the time. Because of the distance between the visitors and prisoners I found I, too, had to raise my voice.
When I came into the room the babel of voices echoing on the bare walls, and the sunlight streaming in, flooding everything in a harsh white glare, made me feel quite dizzy. After the relative darkness and the silence of my cell it took me some moments to get used to these conditions. After a bit, however, I came to see each face quite clearly, lit up as if a spotlight played on it.
I noticed a prison official seated at each end of the no man’s land between the grilles. The native prisoners and their relations on the other side were squatting opposite each other. They didn’t raise their voices and, in spite of the din, managed to converse almost in whispers. This murmur of voices coming from below made a sort of accompaniment to the conversations going on above their heads. I took stock of all this very quickly and moved a step forward toward Marie. She was pressing her brown, sun-tanned face to the bars and smiling as hard as she could. I thought she was looking very pretty, but somehow couldn’t bring myself to tell her so.
“Well?” she asked, pitching her voice very high. “What about it? Are you all right, have you everything you want?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve everything I want.”
We were silent for some moments; Marie went on smiling. The fat woman was bawling at the prisoner beside me, her husband presumably, a tall, fair, pleasant-looking man.
“Jeanne refused to have him,” she yelled.
“That’s just too bad,” the man replied.
“Yes, and I told her you’d take him back the moment you got out; but she wouldn’t hear of it.”
Marie shouted across the gap that Raymond sent me his best wishes, and I said, “Thanks.” But my voice was drowned by my neighbor’s, asking “if he was quite fit.”
The fat woman gave a laugh. “Fit? I should say he is! The picture of health.”
Meanwhile the prisoner on my left, a youngster with thin, girlish hands, never said a word. His eyes, I noticed, were fixed on the little old woman opposite him, and she returned his gaze with a sort of hungry passion. But I had to stop looking at them as Marie was shouting to me that we mustn’t lose hope.
“Certainly not,” I answered. My gaze fell on her shoulders, and I had a sudden longing to squeeze them, through the thin dress. Its silky texture fascinated me, and I had a feeling that the hope she spoke of centered on it, somehow. I imagine something of the same sort was in Marie’s mind, for she went on smiling, looking straight at me.
“It’ll all come right, you’ll see, and then we shall get married.”
All I could see of her now was the white flash of her teeth, and the little puckers round her eyes. I answered: “Do you really think so?” but chiefly because I felt it up to me to answer something.
She started talking very fast in the same high-pitched voice.
“Yes, you’ll be acquitted, and we’ll go bathing again, Sundays.”
The woman beside me was still yelling away, telling her husband that she’d left a basket for him in the prison office. She gave a list of the things she’d brought and told him to mind and check them carefully, as some had cost quite a lot. The youngster on my other side and his mother were still gazing mournfully at each other, and the murmur of the Arabs droned on below us. The light outside seemed to be surging up against the window, seeping through, and smearing the faces of the people facing it with a coat of yellow oil.
I began to feel slightly squeamish, and wished I could leave. The strident voice beside me was jarring on my ears. But, on the other hand, I wanted to have the most I could of Marie’s company. I’ve no idea how much time passed. I remember Marie’s describing to me her work, with that set smile always on her face. There wasn’t a moment’s letup in the noise—shouts, conversations, and always that muttering undertone. The only oasis of silence was made by the young fellow and the old woman gazing into each other’s eyes.
Then, one by one, the Arabs were led away; almost everyone fell silent when the first one left. The little old woman pressed herself against the bars and at the same moment a jailer tapped her son’s shoulder. He called, “Au revoir, Mother,” and, slipping her hand between the bars, she gave him a small, slow wave with it.
No sooner was she gone than a man, hat in hand, took her place. A prisoner was led up to the empty place beside me, and the two started a brisk exchange of remarks—not loud, however, as the room had become relatively quiet. Someone came and called away the man on my right, and his wife shouted at him—she didn’t seem to realize it was no longer necessary to shout—“Now, mind you look after yourself, dear, and don’t do anything rash!”
My turn came next. Marie threw me a kiss. I looked back as I walked away. She hadn’t moved; her face was still pressed to the rails, her lips still parted in that tense, twisted smile.
Soon after this I had a letter from her. And it was then that the things I’ve never liked to talk about began. Not that they were particularly terrible; I’ve no wish to exaggerate and I suffered less than others. Still, there was one thing in those early days that was really irksome: my habit of thinking like a free man. For instance, I would suddenly be seized with a desire to go down to the beach for a swim. And merely to have imagined the sound of ripples at my feet, the smooth feel of the water on my body as I struck out, and the wonderful sensation of relief it gave brought home still more cruelly the narrowness of my cell.
Still, that phase lasted a few months only. Afterward, I had prisoner’s thoughts. I waited for the daily walk in the courtyard or a visit from my lawyer. As for the rest of the time, I managed quite well, really. I’ve often thought that had I been compelled to live in the trunk of a dead tree, with nothing to do but gaze up at the patch of sky just overhead, I’d have got used to it by degrees. I’d have learned to watch for the passing of birds or drifting clouds, as I had come to watch for my lawyer’s odd neckties, or, in another world, to wait patiently till Sunday for a spell of love-making with Marie. Well, here, anyhow, I wasn’t penned in a hollow tree trunk. There were others in the world worse off than I. I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas—she was always voicing it—that in the long run one gets used to anything.
Usually, however, I didn’t think things out so far. Those first months were trying, of course; but the very effort I had to make helped me through them. For instance, I was plagued by the desire for a woman—which was natural enough, considering my age. I never thought of Marie especially. I was obsessed by thoughts of this woman or that, of all the ones I’d had, all the circumstances under which I’d loved them; so much so that the cell grew crowded with their faces, ghosts of my old passions. That unsettled me, no doubt; but, at least, it served to kill time.
I gradually became quite friendly with the chief jailer, who went the rounds with the kitchen hands at mealtimes. It was he who brought up the subject of women. “That’s what the men here grumble about most,” he told me.
I said I felt like that myself. “There’s something unfair about it,” I added, “like hitting a man when he’s down.”
“But that’s the whole point of it,” he said; “that’s why you fellows are kept in prison.”
“I don’t follow.”
“Liberty,” he said, “means that. You’re being deprived of your liberty.”
It had never before struck me in that light, but I saw his point. “That’s true,” I said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be a punishment.”
The jailer nodded. “Yes, you’re different, you can use your brains. The others can’t. Still, those fellows find a way out; they do it by themselves.” With which remark the jailer left my cell. Next day I did like the others.
The lack of cigarettes, too, was a trial. When I was brought to the prison, they took away my belt, my shoelaces, and the contents of my pockets, including my cigarettes. Once I had been given a cell to myself I asked to be given back, anyhow, the cigarettes. Smoking was forbidden, they informed me. That, perhaps, was what got me down the most; in fact, I suffered really badly during the first few days. I even tore off splinters from my plank bed and sucked them. All day long I felt faint and bilious. It passed my understanding why I shouldn’t be allowed even to smoke; it could have done no one any harm. Later on, I understood the idea behind it; this privation, too, was part of my punishment. But, by the time I understood, I’d lost the craving, so it had ceased to be a punishment.
Except for these privations I wasn’t too unhappy. Yet again, the whole problem was: how to kill time. After a while, however, once I’d learned the trick of remembering things, I never had a moment’s boredom. Sometimes I would exercise my memory on my bedroom and, starting from a corner, make the round, noting every object I saw on the way. At first it was over in a minute or two. But each time I repeated the experience, it took a little longer. I made a point of visualizing every piece of furniture, and each article upon or in it, and then every detail of each article, and finally the details of the details, so to speak: a tiny dent or incrustation, or a chipped edge, and the exact grain and color of the woodwork. At the same time I forced myself to keep my inventory in mind from start to finish, in the right order and omitting no item. With the result that, after a few weeks, I could spend hours merely in listing the objects in my bedroom. I found that the more I thought, the more details, half-forgotten or malobserved, floated up from my memory. There seemed no end to them.
So I learned that even after a single day’s experience of the outside world a man could easily live a hundred years in prison. He’d have laid up enough memories never to be bored. Obviously, in one way, this was a compensation.
Then there was sleep. To begin with, I slept badly at night and never in the day. But gradually my nights became better, and I managed to doze off in the daytime as well. In fact, during the last months, I must have slept sixteen or eighteen hours out of the twenty-four. So there remained only six hours to fill—with meals, relieving nature, my memories … and the story of the Czech.
One day, when inspecting my straw mattress, I found a bit of newspaper stuck to its underside. The paper was yellow with age, almost transparent, but I could still make out the letter print. It was the story of a crime. The first part was missing, but I gathered that its scene was some village in Czechoslovakia. One of the villagers had left his home to try his luck abroad. After twenty-five years, having made a fortune, he returned to his country with his wife and child. Meanwhile his mother and sister had been running a small hotel in the village where he was born. He decided to give them a surprise and, leaving his wife and child in another inn, he went to stay at his mother’s place, booking a room under an assumed name. His mother and sister completely failed to recognize him. At dinner that evening he showed them a large sum of money he had on him, and in the course of the night they slaughtered him with a hammer. After taking the money they flung the body into the river. Next morning his wife came and, without thinking, betrayed the guest’s identity. His mother hanged herself. His sister threw herself into a well. I must have read that story thousands of times. In one way it sounded most unlikely; in another, it was plausible enough. Anyhow, to my mind, the man was asking for trouble; one shouldn’t play fool tricks of that sort.
So, what with long bouts of sleep, my memories, readings of that scrap of newspaper, the tides of light and darkness, the days slipped by. I’d read, of course, that in jail one ends up by losing track of time. But this had never meant anything definite to me. I hadn’t grasped how days could be at once long and short. Long, no doubt, as periods to live through, but so distended that they ended up by overlapping on each other. In fact, I never thought of days as such; only the words “yesterday” and “tomorrow” still kept some meaning.
When, one morning, the jailer informed me I’d now been six months in jail, I believed him—but the words conveyed nothing to my mind. To me it seemed like one and the same day that had been going on since I’d been in my cell, and that I’d been doing the same thing all the time.
After the jailer left me I shined up my tin pannikin and studied my face in it. My expression was terribly serious, I thought, even when I tried to smile. I held the pannikin at different angles, but always my face had the same mournful, tense expression.
The sun was setting and it was the hour of which I’d rather not speak—“the nameless hour,” I called it—when evening sounds were creeping up from all the floors of the prison in a sort of stealthy procession. I went to the barred window and in the last rays looked once again at my reflected face. It was as serious as before; and that wasn’t surprising, as just then I was feeling serious. But, at the same time, I heard something that I hadn’t heard for months. It was the sound of a voice; my own voice, there was no mistaking it. And I recognized it as the voice that for many a day of late had been sounding in my ears. So I knew that all this time I’d been talking to myself.
And something I’d been told came back; a remark made by the nurse at Mother’s funeral. No, there was no way out, and no one can imagine what the evenings are like in prison.
ON THE whole I can’t say that those months passed slowly; another summer was on its way almost before I realized the first was over. And I knew that with the first really hot days something new was in store for me. My case was down for the last sessions of the Assize Court, and those sessions were due to end some time in June.
The day on which my trial started was one of brilliant sunshine. My lawyer assured me the case would take only two or three days. “From what I hear,” he added, “the court will dispatch your case as quickly as possible, as it isn’t the most important one on the Cause List. There’s a case of parricide immediately after, which will take them some time.”
They came for me at half-past seven in the morning and I was conveyed to the law courts in a prison van. The two policemen led me into a small room that smelled of darkness. We sat near a door through which came sounds of voices, shouts, chairs scraping on the floor; a vague hubbub which reminded me of one of those small-town “socials” when, after the concert’s over, the hall is cleared for dancing.
One of my policemen told me the judges hadn’t arrived yet, and offered me a cigarette, which I declined. After a bit he asked me if I was feeling nervous. I said, “No,” and that the prospect of witnessing a trial rather interested me; I’d never had occasion to attend one before.
“Maybe,” the other policeman said. “But after an hour or two one’s had enough of it.”
After a while a small electric bell purred in the room. They unfastened my handcuffs, opened the door, and led me to the prisoner’s dock.
There was a great crowd in the courtroom. Though the Venetian blinds were down, light was filtering through the chinks, and the air stiflingly hot already. The windows had been kept shut. I sat down, and the police officers took their stand on each side of my chair.
It was then that I noticed a row of faces opposite me. These people were staring hard at me, and I guessed they were the jury. But somehow I didn’t see them as individuals. I felt as you do just after boarding a streetcar and you’re conscious of all the people on the opposite seat staring at you in the hope of finding something in your appearance to amuse them. Of course, I knew this was an absurd comparison; what these people were looking for in me wasn’t anything to laugh at, but signs of criminality. Still, the difference wasn’t so very great, and, anyhow, that’s the idea I got.
What with the crowd and the stuffiness of the air I was feeling a bit dizzy. I ran my eyes round the courtroom but couldn’t recognize any of the faces. At first I could hardly believe that all these people had come on my account. It was such a new experience, being a focus of interest; in the ordinary way no one ever paid much attention to me.
“What a crush!” I remarked to the policeman on my left, and he explained that the newspapers were responsible for it.
He pointed to a group of men at a table just below the jury box. “There they are!”
“Who?” I asked, and he replied, “The press.” One of them, he added, was an old friend of his.
A moment later the man he’d mentioned looked our way and, coming to the dock, shook hands warmly with the policeman. The journalist was an elderly man with a rather grim expression, but his manner was quite pleasant. Just then I noticed that almost all the people in the courtroom were greeting each other, exchanging remarks and forming groups—behaving, in fact, as in a club where the company of others of one’s own tastes and standing makes one feel at ease. That, no doubt, explained the odd impression I had of being de trop here, a sort of gate-crasher.
However, the journalist addressed me quite amiably, and said he hoped all would go well for me. I thanked him, and he added with a smile:
“You know, we’ve been featuring you a bit. We’re always rather short of copy in the summer, and there’s been precious little to write about except your case and the one that’s coming on after it. I expect you’ve heard about it; it’s a case of parricide.”
He drew my attention to one of the group at the press table, a plump, small man with huge black-rimmed glasses, who made me think of an overfed weasel.
“That fellow’s the special correspondent of one of the Paris dailies. As a matter of fact, he didn’t come on your account. He was sent for the parricide case, but they’ve asked him to cover yours as well.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “That was very kind of them,” but then I thought it would sound silly. With a friendly wave of his hand he left us, and for some minutes nothing happened.
Then, accompanied by some colleagues, my lawyer bustled in, in his gown. He went up to the press table and shook hands with the journalists. They remained laughing and chatting together, all seemingly very much at home here, until a bell rang shrilly and everyone went to his place. My lawyer came up to me, shook hands, and advised me to answer all the questions as briefly as possible, not to volunteer information, and to rely on him to see me through.
I heard a chair scrape on my left, and a tall, thin man wearing pince-nez settled the folds of his red gown as he took his seat. The Public Prosecutor, I gathered. A clerk of the court announced that Their Honors were entering, and at the same moment two big electric fans started buzzing overhead. Three judges, two in black and the third in scarlet, with brief cases under their arms, entered and walked briskly to the bench, which was several feet above the level of the courtroom floor. The man in scarlet took the central, high-backed chair, placed his cap of office on the table, ran a handkerchief over his small bald crown, and announced that the hearing would now begin.
The journalists had their fountain pens ready; they all wore the same expression of slightly ironical indifference, with the exception of one, a much younger man than his colleagues, in gray flannels with a blue tie, who, leaving his pen on the table, was gazing hard at me. He had a plain, rather chunky face; what held my attention were his eyes, very pale, clear eyes, riveted on me, though not betraying any definite emotion. For a moment I had an odd impression, as if I were being scrutinized by myself. That—and the fact that I was unfamiliar with court procedure—may explain why I didn’t follow very well the opening phases: the drawing of lots for the jury, the various questions put by the presiding judge to the Prosecutor, the foreman of the jury, and my counsel (each time he spoke all the jurymen’s heads swung round together toward the bench), the hurried reading of the charge sheet, in the course of which I recognized some familiar names of people and places; then some supplementary questions put to my lawyer.
Next, the Judge announced that the court would call over the witness list. Some of the names read out by the clerk rather surprised me. From amongst the crowd, which until now I had seen as a mere blur of faces, rose, one after the other, Raymond, Masson, Salamano, the doorkeeper from the Home, old Pérez, and Marie, who gave me a little nervous wave of her hand before following the others out by a side door. I was thinking how strange it was I hadn’t noticed any of them before when I heard the last name called, that of Céleste. As he rose, I noticed beside him the quaint little woman with a mannish coat and brisk, decided air, who had shared my table at the restaurant. She had her eyes fixed on me, I noticed. But I hadn’t time to wonder about her; the Judge had started speaking again.
He said that the trial proper was about to begin, and he need hardly say that he expected the public to refrain from any demonstration whatsoever. He explained that he was there to supervise the proceedings, as a sort of umpire, and he would take a scrupulously impartial view of the case. The verdict of the jury would be interpreted by him in a spirit of justice. Finally, at the least sign of a disturbance he would have the court cleared.
The day was stoking up. Some of the public were fanning themselves with newspapers, and there was a constant rustle of crumpled paper. On a sign from the presiding judge the clerk of the court brought three fans of plaited straw, which the three judges promptly put in action.
My examination began at once. The Judge questioned me quite calmly and even, I thought, with a hint of cordiality. For the nth time I was asked to give particulars of my identity and, though heartily sick of this formality, I realized that it was natural enough; after all, it would be a shocking thing for the court to be trying the wrong man.
The Judge then launched into an account of what I’d done, stopping after every two or three sentences to ask me, “Is that correct?” To which I always replied, “Yes, sir,” as my lawyer had advised me. It was a long business, as the Judge lingered on each detail. Meanwhile the journalists scribbled busily away. But I was sometimes conscious of the eyes of the youngest fixed on me; also those of the queer little robot woman. The jurymen, however, were all gazing at the red-robed judge, and I was again reminded of the row of passengers on one side of a tram. Presently he gave a slight cough, turned some pages of his file, and, still fanning his face, addressed me gravely.
He now proposed, he said, to trench on certain matters which, on a superficial view, might seem foreign to the case, but actually were highly relevant. I guessed that he was going to talk about Mother, and at the same moment realized how odious I would find this. His first question was: Why had I sent my mother to an institution? I replied that the reason was simple; I hadn’t enough money to see that she was properly looked after at home. Then he asked if the parting hadn’t caused me distress. I explained that neither Mother nor I expected much of one another—or, for that matter, of anybody else; so both of us had got used to the new conditions easily enough. The Judge then said that he had no wish to press the point, and asked the Prosecutor if he could think of any more questions that should be put to me at this stage.
The Prosecutor, who had his back half turned to me, said, without looking in my direction, that, subject to His Honor’s approval, he would like to know if I’d gone back to the stream with the intention of killing the Arab. I said, “No.” In that case, why had I taken a revolver with me, and why go back precisely to that spot? I said it was a matter of pure chance. The Prosecutor then observed in a nasty tone: “Very good. That will be all for the present.”
I couldn’t quite follow what came next. Anyhow, after some palavering among the bench, the Prosecutor, and my counsel, the presiding judge announced that the court would now rise; there was an adjournment till the afternoon, when evidence would be taken.
Almost before I knew what was happening I was rushed out to the prison van, which drove me back, and I was given my midday meal. After a short time, just enough for me to realize how tired I was feeling, they came for me. I was back in the same room, confronting the same faces, and the whole thing started again. But the heat had meanwhile much increased, and by some miracle fans had been procured for everyone: the jury, my lawyer, the Prosecutor, and some of the journalists, too. The young man and the robot woman were still at their places. But they were not fanning themselves and, as before, they never took their eyes off me.
I wiped the sweat from my face, but I was barely conscious of where or who I was until I heard the warden of the Home called to the witness box. When asked if my
mother had complained about my conduct, he said, “Yes,” but that didn’t mean much; almost all the inmates of the Home had grievances against their relatives. The Judge asked him to be more explicit; did she reproach me with having sent her to the Home, and he said, “Yes,” again. But this time he didn’t qualify his answer.
To another question he replied that on the day of the funeral he was somewhat surprised by my calmness. Asked to explain what he meant by “my calmness,” the warden lowered his eyes and stared at his shoes for a moment. Then he explained that I hadn’t wanted to see Mother’s body, or shed a single tear, and that I’d left immediately the funeral ended, without lingering at her grave. Another thing had surprised him. One of the undertaker’s men told him that I didn’t know my mother’s age. There was a short silence; then the Judge asked him if he might take it that he was referring to the prisoner in the dock. The warden seemed puzzled by this, and the Judge explained: “It’s a formal question. I am bound to put it.”
The Prosecutor was then asked if he had any questions to put, and he answered loudly: “Certainly not! I have all I want.” His tone and the look of triumph on his face, as he glanced at me, were so marked that I felt as I hadn’t felt for ages. I had a foolish desire to burst into tears. For the first time I’d realized how all these people loathed me.
After asking the jury and my lawyer if they had any questions, the Judge heard the doorkeeper’s evidence. On stepping into the box the man threw a glance at me, then looked away. Replying to questions, he said that I’d declined to see Mother’s body, I’d smoked cigarettes and slept, and drunk café au lait. It was then I felt a sort of wave of indignation spreading through the courtroom, and for the first time I understood that I was guilty. They got the doorkeeper to repeat what he had said about the coffee and my smoking.
The Prosecutor turned to me again, with a gloating look in his eyes. My counsel asked the doorkeeper if he, too, hadn’t smoked. But the Prosecutor took strong exception to this. “I’d like to know,” he cried indignantly, “who is on trial in this court. Or does my friend think that by aspersing a witness for the prosecution he will shake the evidence, the abundant and cogent evidence, against his client?” None the less, the Judge told the doorkeeper to answer the question.
The old fellow fidgeted a bit. Then, “Well, I know I didn’t ought to have done it,” he mumbled, “but I did take a cigarette from the young gentleman when he offered it—just out of politeness.”
The Judge asked me if I had any comment to make. “None,” I said, “except that the witness is quite right. It’s true I offered him a cigarette.”
The doorkeeper looked at me with surprise and a sort of gratitude. Then, after hemming and hawing for a bit, he volunteered the statement that it was he who’d suggested I should have some coffee.
My lawyer was exultant. “The jury will appreciate,” he said, “the importance of this admission.”
The Prosecutor, however, was promptly on his feet again. “Quite so,” he boomed above our heads. “The jury will appreciate it. And they will draw the conclusion that, though a third party might inadvertently offer him a cup of coffee, the prisoner, in common decency, should have refused it, if only out of respect for the dead body of the poor woman who had brought him into the world.”
After which the doorkeeper went back to his seat.
When Thomas Pérez was called, a court officer had. to help him to the box. Pérez stated that, though he had been a great friend of my mother, he had met me once only, on the day of the funeral. Asked how I had behaved that day, he said:
“Well, I was most upset, you know. Far too much upset to notice things. My grief sort of blinded me, I think. It had been a great shock, my dear friend’s death; in fact, I fainted during the funeral. So I didn’t hardly notice the young gentleman at all.”
The Prosecutor asked him to tell the court if he’d seen me weep. And when Pérez answered, “No,” added emphatically: “I trust the jury will take note of this reply.”
My lawyer rose at once, and asked Pérez in a tone that seemed to me needlessly aggressive:
“Now, think well, my man! Can you swear you saw he didn’t shed a tear?”
Pérez answered, “No.”
At this some people tittered, and my lawyer, pushing back one sleeve of his gown, said sternly:
“That is typical of the way this case is being conducted. No attempt is being made to elicit the true facts.”
The Prosecutor ignored this remark; he was making dabs with his pencil on the cover of his brief, seemingly quite indifferent.
There was a break of five minutes, during which my lawyer told me the case was going very well indeed. Then Céleste was called. He was announced as a witness for the defense. The defense meant me.
Now and again Céleste threw me a glance; he kept squeezing his Panama hat between his hands as he gave evidence. He was in his best suit, the one he wore when sometimes of a Sunday he went with me to the races. But evidently he hadn’t been able to get his collar on; the top of his shirt, I noticed, was secured only by a brass stud. Asked if I was one of his customers, he said, “Yes, and a friend as well.” Asked to state his opinion of me, he said that I was “all right” and, when told to explain what he meant by that, he replied that everyone knew what that meant. “Was I a secretive sort of man?” “No,” he answered, “I shouldn’t call him that. But he isn’t one to waste his breath, like a lot of folks.”
The Prosecutor asked him if I always settled my monthly bill at his restaurant when he presented it. Céleste laughed. “Oh, he paid on the nail, all right. But the bills were just details-like, between him and me.” Then he was asked to say what he thought about the crime. He placed his hands on the rail of the box and one could see he had a speech all ready.
“To my mind it was just an accident, or a stroke of bad luck, if you prefer. And a thing like that takes you off your guard.”
He wanted to continue, but the Judge cut him short. “Quite so. That’s all, thank you.”
For a bit Céleste seemed flabbergasted; then he explained that he hadn’t finished what he wanted to say. They told him to continue, but to make it brief.
He only repeated that it was “just an accident.”
“That’s as it may be,” the Judge observed. “But what we are here for is to try such accidents, according to law. You can stand down.”
Céleste turned and gazed at me. His eyes were moist and his lips trembling. It was exactly as if he’d said: “Well, I’ve done my best for you, old man. I’m afraid it hasn’t helped much. I’m sorry.”
I didn’t say anything, or make any movement, but for the first time in my life I wanted to kiss a man.
The Judge repeated his order to stand down, and Céleste returned to his place amongst the crowd. During the rest of the hearing he remained there, leaning forward, elbows on knees and his Panama between his hands, not missing a word of the proceedings.
It was Marie’s turn next. She had a hat on and still looked quite pretty, though I much preferred her with her hair free. From where I was I had glimpses of the soft curve of her breasts, and her underlip had the little pout that always fascinated me. She appeared very nervous.
The first question was: How long had she known me? Since the time when she was in our office, she replied. Then the Judge asked her what were the relations between us, and she said she was my girl friend. Answering another question, she admitted promising to marry me. The Prosecutor, who had been studying a document in front of him, asked her rather sharply when our “liaison” had begun. She gave the date. He then observed with a would-be casual air that apparently she meant the day following my mother’s funeral. After letting this sink in he remarked in a slightly ironic tone that obviously this was a “delicate topic” and he could enter into the young lady’s feelings, but—and here his voice grew sterner—his duty obliged him to waive considerations of delicacy.
After making this announcement he asked Marie to give a full account of our doings on the day when I had “intercourse” with her for the first time. Marie wouldn’t answer at first, but the Prosecutor insisted, and then she told him that we had met at the baths, gone together to the pictures, and then to my place. He then informed the court that, as a result of certain statements made by Marie at the proceedings before the magistrate, he had studied the movie programs of that date, and turning to Marie asked her to name the film that we had gone to see. In a very low voice she said it was a picture with Fernandel in it. By the time she had finished, the courtroom was so still you could have heard a pin drop.
Looking very grave, the Prosecutor drew himself up to his full height and, pointing at me, said in such a tone that I could have sworn he was genuinely moved:
“Gentlemen of the jury, I would have you note that on the next day after his mother’s funeral that man was visiting the swimming pool, starting a liaison with a girl, and going to see a comic film. That is all I wish to say.”
When he sat down there was the same dead silence. Then all of a sudden Marie burst into tears. He’d got it all wrong, she said; it wasn’t a bit like that really, he’d bullied her into saying the opposite of what she meant. She knew me very well, and she was sure I hadn’t done anything really wrong—and so on. At a sign from the presiding judge, one of the court officers led her away, and the hearing continued.
Hardly anyone seemed to listen to Masson, the next witness. He stated that I was a respectable young fellow; “and, what’s more, a very decent chap.” Nor did they pay any more attention to Salamano, when he told them how kind I’d always been to his dog, or when, in answer to a question about my mother and myself, he said that Mother and I had very little in common and that explained why I’d fixed up for her to enter the Home. “You’ve got to understand,” he added. “You’ve got to understand.” But no one seemed to understand. He was told to stand down.
Raymond was the next, and last, witness. He gave me a little wave of his hand and led off by saying I was innocent. The Judge rebuked him.
“You are here to give evidence, not your views on the case, and you must confine yourself to answering the questions put you.”
He was then asked to make clear his relations with the deceased, and Raymond took this opportunity of explaining that it was he, not I, against whom the dead man had a grudge, because he, Raymond, had beaten up his sister. The judge asked him if the deceased had no reason to dislike me, too. Raymond told him that my presence on the beach that morning was a pure coincidence.
“How comes it then,” the Prosecutor inquired, “that the letter which led up to this tragedy was the prisoner’s work?”
Raymond replied that this, too, was due to mere chance.
To which the Prosecutor retorted that in this case “chance” or “mere coincidence” seemed to play a remarkably large part. Was it by chance that I hadn’t intervened when Raymond assaulted his mistress? Did this convenient term “chance” account for my having vouched for Raymond at the police station and having made, on that occasion, statements extravagantly favorable to him? In conclusion he asked Raymond to state what were his means of livelihood.
On his describing himself as a warehouseman, the Prosecutor informed the jury it was common knowledge that the witness lived on the immoral earnings of women. I, he said, was this man’s intimate friend and associate; in fact, the whole background of the crime was of the most squalid description. And what made it even more odious was the personality of the prisoner, an inhuman monster wholly without a moral sense.
Raymond began to expostulate, and my lawyer, too, protested. They were told that the Prosecutor must be allowed to finish his remarks.
“I have nearly done,” he said; then turned to Raymond. “Was the prisoner your friend?”
“Certainly. We were the best of pals, as they say.”
The Prosecutor then put me the same question. I looked hard at Raymond, and he did not turn away.
Then, “Yes,” I answered.
The Prosecutor turned toward the jury.
“Not only did the man before you in the dock indulge in the most shameful orgies on the day following his mother’s death. He killed a man cold-bloodedly, in pursuance of some sordid vendetta in the underworld of prostitutes and pimps. That, gentlemen of the jury, is the type of man the prisoner is.”
No sooner had he sat down than my lawyer, out of all patience, raised his arms so high that his sleeves fell back, showing the full length of his starched shirt cuffs.
“Is my client on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man?” he asked.
There were some titters in court. But then the Prosecutor sprang to his feet and, draping his gown round him, said he was amazed at his friend’s ingenuousness in failing to see that between these two elements of the case there was a vital link. They hung together psychologically, if he might put it so. “In short,” he concluded, speaking with great vehemence, “I accuse the prisoner of behaving at his mother’s funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart.”
These words seemed to take much effect on the jury and public. My lawyer merely shrugged his shoulders and wiped the sweat from his forehead. But obviously he was rattled, and I had a feeling things weren’t going well for me.
Soon after this incident the court rose. As I was being taken from the courthouse to the prison van, I was conscious for a few brief moments of the once familiar feel of a summer evening out-of-doors. And, sitting in the darkness of my moving cell, I recognized, echoing in my tired brain, all the characteristic sounds of a town I’d loved, and of a certain hour of the day which I had always particularly enjoyed. The shouts of newspaper boys in the already languid air, the last calls of birds in the public garden, the cries of sandwich vendors, the screech of streetcars at the steep corners of the upper town, and that faint rustling overhead as darkness sifted down upon the harbor—all these sounds made my return to prison like a blind man’s journey along a route whose every inch he knows by heart.
Yes, this was the evening hour when—how long ago it seemed!—I always felt so well content with life. Then, what awaited me was a night of easy, dreamless sleep. This was the same hour, but with a difference; I was returning to a cell, and what awaited me was a night haunted by forebodings of the coming day. And so I learned that familiar paths traced in the dusk of summer evenings may lead as well to prisons as to innocent, untroubled sleep.
IT is always interesting, even in the prisoner’s dock, to hear oneself being talked about. And certainly in the speeches of my lawyer and the prosecuting counsel a great deal was said about me; more, in fact, about me personally than about my crime.
Really there wasn’t any very great difference between the two speeches. Counsel for the defense raised his arms to heaven and pleaded guilty, but with extenuating circumstances. The Prosecutor made similar gestures; he agreed that I was guilty, but denied extenuating circumstances.
One thing about this phase of the trial was rather irksome. Quite often, interested as I was in what they had to say, I was tempted to put in a word, myself. But my lawyer had advised me not to. “You won’t do your case any good by talking,” he had warned me. In fact, there seemed to be a conspiracy to exclude me from the proceedings; I wasn’t to have any say and my fate was to be decided out of hand.
It was quite an effort at times for me to refrain from cutting them all short, and saying: “But, damn it all, who’s on trial in this court, I’d like to know? It’s a serious matter for a man, being accused of murder. And I’ve something really important to tell you.”
However, on second thoughts, I found I had nothing to say. In any case, I must admit that hearing oneself talked about loses its interest very soon. The Prosecutor’s speech, especially, began to bore me before he was halfway through it. The only things that really caught my attention were occasional phrases, his gestures, and some elaborate tirades—but these were isolated patches.
What he was aiming at, I gathered, was to show that my crime was premeditated. I remember his saying at one moment, “I can prove this, gentlemen of the jury, to the hilt. First, you have the facts of the crime; which are as clear as daylight. And then you have what I may call the night side of this case, the dark workings of a criminal mentality.”
He began by summing up the facts, from my mother’s death onward. He stressed my heartlessness, my inability to state Mother’s age, my visit to the swimming pool where I met Marie, our matinee at the pictures where a Fernandel film was showing, and finally my return with Marie to my rooms. I didn’t quite follow his remarks at first, as he kept on mentioning “the prisoner’s mistress,” whereas for me she was just “Marie.” Then he came to the subject of Raymond. It seemed to me that his way of treating the facts showed a certain shrewdness. All he said sounded quite plausible. I’d written the letter in collusion with Raymond so as to entice his mistress to his room and subject her to ill-treatment by a man “of more than dubious reputation.” Then, on the beach, I’d provoked a brawl with Raymond’s enemies, in the course of which Raymond was wounded. I’d asked him for his revolver and gone back by myself with the intention of using it. Then I’d shot the Arab. After the first shot I waited. Then, “to be certain of making a good job of it,” I fired four more shots deliberately, point-blank, and in cold blood, at my victim.
“That is my case,” he said. “I have described to you the series of events which led this man to kill the deceased, fully aware of what he was doing. I emphasize this point. We are not concerned with an act of homicide committed on a sudden impulse which might serve as extenuation. I ask you to note, gentlemen of the jury, that the prisoner is an educated man. You will have observed the way in which he answered my questions; he is intelligent and he knows the value of words. And I repeat that it is quite impossible to assume that, when he committed the crime, he was unaware what he was doing.”
I noticed that he laid stress on my “intelligence.” It puzzled me rather why what would count as a good point in an ordinary person should be used against an accused man as an overwhelming proof of his guilt. While thinking this over, I missed what he said next, until I heard him exclaim indignantly: “And has he uttered a word of regret for his most odious crime? Not one word, gentlemen. Not once in the course of these proceedings did this man show the least contrition.”
Turning toward the dock, he pointed a finger at me, and went on in the same strain. I really couldn’t understand why he harped on this point so much. Of course, I had to own that he was right; I didn’t feel much regret for what I’d done. Still, to my mind he overdid it, and I’d have liked to have a chance of explaining to him, in a quite friendly, almost affectionate way, that I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back. Of course, in the position into which I had been forced, there was no question of my speaking to anyone in that tone. I hadn’t the right to show any friendly feeling or possess good intentions. And I tried to follow what came next, as the Prosecutor was now considering what he called my “soul.”
He said he’d studied it closely—and had found a blank, “literally nothing, gentlemen of the jury.” Really, he said, I had no soul, there was nothing human about me, not one of those moral qualities which normal men possess had any place in my mentality. “No doubt,” he added, “we should not reproach him with this. We cannot blame a man for lacking what it was never in his power to acquire. But in a criminal court the wholly passive ideal of tolerance must give place to a sterner, loftier ideal, that of justice. Especially when this lack of every decent instinct is such as that of the man before you, a menace to society.” He proceeded to discuss my conduct toward my mother, repeating what he had said in the course of the hearing. But he spoke at much greater length of my crime—at such length, indeed, that I lost the thread and was conscious only of the steadily increasing heat.
A moment came when the Prosecutor paused and, after a short silence, said in a low, vibrant voice: “This same court, gentlemen, will be called on to try tomorrow that most odious of crimes, the murder of a father by his son.” To his mind, such a crime was almost unimaginable. But, he ventured to hope, justice would be meted out without paltering. And yet, he made bold to say, the horror that even the crime of parricide inspired in him paled beside the loathing inspired by my callousness.
“This man, who is morally guilty of his mother’s death, is no less unfit to have a place in the community than that other man who did to death the father that begat him. And, indeed, the one crime led on to the other; the first of these two criminals, the man in the dock, set a precedent, if I may put it so, and authorized the second crime. Yes, gentlemen, I am convinced”—here he raised his voice a tone—“that you will not find I am exaggerating the case against the prisoner when I say that he is also guilty of the murder to be tried tomorrow in this court. And I look to you for a verdict accordingly.”
The Prosecutor paused again, to wipe the sweat off his face. He then explained that his duty was a painful one, but he would do it without flinching. “This man has, I repeat, no place in a community whose basic principles he flouts without compunction. Nor, heartless as he is, has he any claim to mercy. I ask you to impose the extreme penalty of the law; and I ask it without a qualm. In the course of a long career, in which it has often been my duty to ask for a capital sentence, never have I felt that painful duty weigh so little on my mind as in the present case. In demanding a verdict of murder without extenuating circumstances, I am following not only the dictates of my conscience and a sacred obligation, but also those of the natural and righteous indignation I feel at the sight of a criminal devoid of the least spark of human feeling.”
When the Prosecutor sat down there was a longish silence. Personally I was quite overcome by the heat and my amazement at what I had been hearing. The presiding judge gave a short cough, and asked me in a very low tone if I had anything to say. I rose, and as I felt in the mood to speak, I said the first thing that crossed my mind: that I’d had no intention of killing the Arab. The Judge replied that this statement would be taken into consideration by the court. Meanwhile he would be glad to hear, before my counsel addressed the court, what were the motives of my crime. So far, he must admit, he hadn’t fully understood the grounds of my defense.
I tried to explain that it was because of the sun, but I spoke too quickly and ran my words into each other. I was only too conscious that it sounded nonsensical, and, in fact, I heard people tittering.
My lawyer shrugged his shoulders. Then he was directed to address the court, in his turn. But all he did was to point out the lateness of the hour and to ask for an adjournment till the following afternoon. To this the judge agreed.
When I was brought back next day, the electric fans were still churning up the heavy air and the jurymen plying their gaudy little fans in a sort of steady rhythm. The speech for the defense seemed to me interminable. At one moment, however, I pricked up my ears; it was when I heard him saying: “It is true I killed a man.” He went on in the same strain, saying “I” when he referred to me. It seemed so queer that I bent toward the policeman on my right and asked him to explain. He told me to shut up; then, after a moment, whispered: “They all do that.” It seemed to me that the idea behind it was still further to exclude me from the case, to put me off the map. so to speak, by substituting the lawyer for myself. Anyway, it hardly mattered; I already felt worlds away from this courtroom and its tedious “proceedings.”
My lawyer, in any case, struck me as feeble to the point of being ridiculous. He hurried through his plea of provocation, and then he, too, started in about my soul. But I had an impression that he had much less talent than the Prosecutor.
“I, too,” he said, “have closely studied this man’s soul; but, unlike my learned friend for the prosecution, I have found something there. Indeed, I may say that I have read the prisoner’s mind like an open book.” What he had read there was that I was an excellent young fellow, a steady, conscientious worker who did his best by his employer; that I was popular with everyone and sympathetic in others’ troubles. According to him I was a dutiful son, who had supported his mother as long as he was able. After anxious consideration I had reached the conclusion that, by entering a home, the old lady would have comforts that my means didn’t permit me to provide for her. “I am astounded, gentlemen,” he added, “by the attitude taken up by my learned friend in referring to this Home. Surely if proof be needed of the excellence of such institutions, we need only remember that they are promoted and financed by a government department.” I noticed that he made no reference to the funeral, and this seemed to me a serious omission. But, what with his long-windedness, the endless days and hours they had been discussing my “soul,” and the rest of it, I found that my mind had gone blurred; everything was dissolving into a grayish, watery haze.
Only one incident stands out; toward the end, while my counsel rambled on, I heard the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street, a small, shrill sound cutting across the flow of words. And then a rush of memories went through my mind—memories of a life which was mine no longer and had once provided me with the surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh. The futility of what was happening here seemed to take me by the throat, I felt like vomiting, and I had only one idea: to get it over, to go back to my cell, and sleep … and sleep.
Dimly I heard my counsel making his last appeal.
“Gentlemen of the jury, surely you will not send to his death a decent, hard-working young man, because for one tragic moment he lost his self-control? Is he not sufficiently punished by the lifelong remorse that is to be his lot? I confidently await your verdict, the only verdict possible—that of homicide with extenuating circumstances.”
The court rose, and the lawyer sat down, looking thoroughly exhausted. Some of his colleagues came to him and shook his hand. “You put up a magnificent show, old man,” I heard one of them say. Another lawyer even called me to witness: “Fine, wasn’t it?” I agreed, but insincerely; I was far too tired to judge if it had been “fine” or otherwise.
Meanwhile the day was ending and the heat becoming less intense. By some vague sounds that reached me from the street I knew that the cool of the evening had set in. We all sat on, waiting. And what we all were waiting for really concerned nobody but me. I looked round the courtroom. It was exactly as it had been on the first day. I met the eyes of the journalist in gray and the robot woman. This reminded me that not once during the whole hearing had I tried to catch Marie’s eye. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten her; only I was too preoccupied. I saw her now, seated between Céleste and Raymond. She gave me a little wave of her hand, as if to say, “At last!” She was smiling, but I could tell that she was rather anxious. But my heart seemed turned to stone, and I couldn’t even return her smile.
The judges came back to their seats. Someone read out to the jury, very rapidly, a string of questions. I caught a word here and there. “Murder of malice aforethought … Provocation … Extenuating circumstances.” The jury went out, and I was taken to the little room where I had already waited. My lawyer came to see me; he was very talkative and showed more cordiality and confidence than ever before. He assured me that all would go well and I’d get off with a few years’ imprisonment or transportation. I asked him what were the chances of getting the sentence quashed. He said there was no chance of that. He had not raised any point of law, as this was apt to prejudice the jury. And it was difficult to get a judgment quashed except on technical grounds. I saw his point, and agreed. Looking at the matter dispassionately, I shared his view. Otherwise there would be no end to litigation. “In any case,” the lawyer said, “you can appeal in the ordinary way. But I’m convinced the verdict will be favorable.”
We waited for quite a while, a good three quarters of an hour, I should say. Then a bell rang. My lawyer left me, saying:
“The foreman of the jury will read out the answers. You will be called on after that to hear the judgment.”
Some doors banged. I heard people hurrying down flights of steps, but couldn’t tell whether they were near by or distant. Then I heard a voice droning away in the courtroom.
When the bell rang again and I stepped back into the dock, the silence of the courtroom closed in round me, and with the silence came a queer sensation when I noticed that, for the. first time, the young journalist kept his eyes averted. I didn’t look in Marie’s direction. In fact, I had no time to look, as the presiding judge had already started pronouncing a rigmarole to the effect that “in the name of the French people” I was to be decapitated in some public place.
It seemed to me then that I could interpret the look on the faces of those present; it was one of almost respectful sympathy. The policemen, too, handled me very gently. The lawyer placed his hand on my wrist. I had stopped thinking altogether. I heard the Judge’s voice asking if I had anything more to say. After thinking for a moment, I answered, “No.” Then the policemen led me out.
I HAVE just refused, for the third time, to see the prison chaplain. I have nothing to say to him, don’t feel like talking—and shall be seeing him quite soon enough, anyway. The only thing that interests me now is the problem of circumventing the machine, learning if the inevitable admits a loophole.
They have moved me to another cell. In this one, lying on my back, I can see the sky, and there is nothing else to see. All my time is spent in watching the slowly changing colors of the sky, as day moves on to night. I put my hands behind my head, gaze up, and wait.
This problem of a loophole obsesses me; I am always wondering if there have been cases of condemned prisoners’ escaping from the implacable machinery of justice at the last moment, breaking through the police cordon, vanishing in the nick of time before the guillotine falls. Often and often I blame myself for not having given more attention to accounts of public executions. One should always take an interest in such matters. There’s never any knowing what one may come to. Like everyone else I’d read descriptions of executions in the papers. But technical books dealing with this subject must certainly exist; only I’d never felt sufficiently interested to look them up. And in these books I might have found escape stories. Surely they’d have told me that in one case, anyhow, the wheels had stopped; that once, if only once, in that inexorable march of events, chance or luck had played a happy part. Just once! In a way I think that single instance would have satisfied me. My emotion would have done the rest. The papers often talk of “a debt owed to society”—a debt which, according to them, must be paid by the offender. But talk of that sort doesn’t touch the imagination. No, the one thing that counted for me was the possibility of making a dash for it and defeating their bloodthirsty rite; of a mad stampede to freedom that would anyhow give me a moment’s hope, the gambler’s last throw. Naturally, all that “hope” could come to was to be knocked down at the corner of a street or picked off by a bullet in my back. But, all things considered, even this luxury was forbidden me; I was caught in the rattrap irrevocably.
Try as I might, I couldn’t stomach this brutal certitude. For really, when one came to think of it, there was a disproportion between the judgment on which it was based and the unalterable sequence of events starting from the moment when that judgment was delivered. The fact that the verdict was read out at eight P.M. rather than at five, the fact that it might have been quite different, that it was given by men who change their underclothes, and was credited to so vague an entity as the “French people”—for that matter, why not to the Chinese or the German people?—all these facts seemed to deprive the court’s decision of much of its gravity. Yet I could but recognize that, from the moment the verdict was given, its effects became as cogent, as tangible, as, for example, this wall against which I was lying, pressing my back to it.
When such thoughts crossed my mind, I remembered a story Mother used to tell me about my father. I never set eyes on him. Perhaps the only things I really knew about him were what Mother had told me. One of these was that he’d gone to see a murderer executed. The mere thought of it turned his stomach. But he’d seen it through and, on coming home, was violently sick. At the time, I found my father’s conduct rather disgusting. But now I understood; it was so natural. How had I failed to recognize that nothing was more important than an execution; that, viewed from one angle, it’s the only thing that can genuinely interest a man? And I decided that, if ever I got out of jail, I’d attend every execution that took place. I was unwise, no doubt, even to consider this possibility. For, the moment I’d pictured myself in freedom, standing behind a double rank of policemen—on the right side of the line, so to speak—the mere thought of being an onlooker who comes to see the show, and can go home and vomit afterward, flooded my mind with a wild, absurd exultation. It was a stupid thing to let my imagination run away with me like that; a moment later I had a shivering fit and had to wrap myself closely in my blanket. But my teeth went on chattering; nothing would stop them.
Still, obviously, one can’t be sensible all the time. Another equally ridiculous fancy of mine was to frame new laws, altering the penalties. What was wanted, to my mind, was to give the criminal a chance, if only a dog’s chance; say, one chance in a thousand. There might be some drug, or combination of drugs, which would kill the patient (I thought of him as “the patient”) nine hundred and ninety times in a thousand. That he should know this was, of course, essential. For after taking much thought, calmly, I came to the conclusion that what was wrong about the guillotine was that the condemned man had no chance at all, absolutely none. In fact, the patient’s death had been ordained irrevocably. It was a foregone conclusion. If by some fluke the knife didn’t do its job, they started again. So it came to this, that—against the grain, no doubt—the condemned man had to hope the apparatus was in good working order! This, I thought, was a flaw in the system; and, on the face of it, my view was sound enough. On the other hand, I had to admit it proved the efficiency of the system. It came to this; the man under sentence was obliged to collaborate mentally, it was in his interest that all should go off without a hitch.
Another thing I had to recognize was that, until now, I’d had wrong ideas on the subject. For some reason I’d always supposed that one had to go up steps and climb on to a scaffold, to be guillotined. Probably that was because of the 1789 Revolution; I mean, what I’d learned about it at school, and the pictures I had seen. Then one morning I remembered a photograph the newspapers had featured on the occasion of the execution of a famous criminal. Actually the apparatus stood on the ground; there was nothing very impressing about it, and it was much narrower than I’d imagined. It struck me as rather odd that picture had escaped my memory until now. What had struck me at the time was the neat appearance of the guillotine; its shining surfaces and finish reminded me of some laboratory instrument. One always has exaggerated ideas about what one doesn’t know. Now I had to admit it seemed a very simple process, getting guillotined; the machine is on the same level as the man, and he walks toward it as he steps forward to meet somebody he knows. In a sense, that, too, was disappointing. The business of climbing a scaffold, leaving the world below, so to speak, gave something for a man’s imagination to get hold of. But, as it was, the machine dominated everything; they killed you discreetly, with a hint of shame and much efficiency.
There were two other things about which I was always thinking: the dawn and my appeal. However, I did my best to keep my mind off these thoughts. I lay down, looked up at the sky, and forced myself to study it. When the light began to turn green I knew that night was coming. Another thing I did to deflect the course of my thoughts was to listen to my heart. I couldn’t imagine that this faint throbbing which had been with me for so long would ever cease. Imagination has never been one of my strong points. Still, I tried to picture a moment when the beating of my heart no longer echoed in my head. But, in vain. The dawn and my appeal were still there. And I ended by believing it was a silly thing to try to force one’s thoughts out of their natural groove.
They always came for one at dawn; that much I knew. So, really, all my nights were spent in waiting for that dawn. I have never liked being taken by surprise. When something happens to me I want to be ready for it. That’s why I got into the habit of sleeping off and on in the daytime and watching through the night for the first hint of daybreak in the dark dome above. The worst period of the night was that vague hour when, I knew, they usually come; once it was after midnight I waited, listening intently. Never before had my ears perceived so many noises, such tiny sounds. Still, I must say I was lucky in one respect; never during any of those periods did I hear footsteps. Mother used to say that however miserable one is, there’s always something to be thankful for. And each morning, when the sky brightened and light began to flood my cell, I agreed with her. Because I might just as well have heard footsteps, and felt my heart shattered into bits. Even though the faintest rustle sent me hurrying to the door and, pressing an ear to the rough, cold wood, I listened so intently that I could hear my breathing, quick and hoarse like a dog’s panting—even so there was an end; my heart hadn’t split, and I knew I had another twenty-four hours’ respite.
Then all day there was my appeal to think about. I made the most of this idea, studying my effects so as to squeeze out the maximum of consolation. Thus, I always began by assuming the worst; my appeal was dismissed. That meant, of course, I was to die. Sooner than others, obviously. “But,” I reminded myself, “it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow.” And, on a wide view, I could see that it makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten—since, in either case, other men and women will continue living, the world will go on as before. Also, whether I died now or forty years hence, this business of dying had to be got through, inevitably. Still, somehow this line of thought wasn’t as consoling as it should have been; the idea of all those years of life in hand was a galling reminder! However, I could argue myself out of it, by picturing what would have been my feelings when my term was up, and death had cornered me. Once you’re up against it, the precise manner of your death has obviously small importance. Therefore—but it was hard not to lose the thread of the argument leading up to that “therefore”—I should be prepared to face the dismissal of my appeal.
At this stage, but only at this stage, I had, so to speak, the right, and accordingly I gave myself leave, to consider the other alternative; that my appeal was successful. And then the trouble was to calm down that sudden rush of joy racing through my body and even bringing tears to my eyes. But it was up to me to bring my nerves to heel and steady my mind; for, even in considering this possibility, I had to keep some order in my thoughts, so as to make my consolations, as regards the first alternative, more plausible. When I’d succeeded, I had earned a good hour’s peace of mind; and that, anyhow, was something.
It was at one of these moments that I refused once again to see the chaplain. I was lying down and could mark the summer evening coming on by a soft golden glow spreading across the sky. I had just turned down my appeal, and felt my blood circulating with slow, steady throbs. No, I didn’t want to see the chaplain. … Then I did something I hadn’t done for quite a while; I fell to thinking about Marie. She hadn’t written for ages; probably, I surmised, she had grown tired of being the mistress of a man sentenced to death. Or she might be ill, or dead. After all, such things happen. How could I have known about it, since, apart from our two bodies, separated now, there was no link between us, nothing to remind us of each other? Supposing she were dead, her memory would mean nothing; I couldn’t feel an interest in a dead girl. This seemed to me quite normal; just as I realized people would soon forget me once I was dead. I couldn’t even say that this was hard to stomach; really, there’s no idea to which one doesn’t get acclimatized in time.
My thoughts had reached this point when the chaplain walked in, unannounced. I couldn’t help giving a start on seeing him. He noticed this evidently, as he promptly told me not to be alarmed. I reminded him that usually his visits were at another hour, and for a pretty grim occasion. This, he replied, was just a friendly visit; it had no concern with my appeal, about which he knew nothing. Then he sat down on my bed, asking me to sit beside him. I refused—not because I had anything against him; he seemed a mild, amiable man.
He remained quite still at first, his arms resting on his knees, his eyes fixed on his hands. They were slender but sinewy hands, which made me think of two nimble little animals. Then he gently rubbed them together. He stayed so long in the same position that for a while I almost forgot he was there.
All of a sudden he jerked his head up and looked me in the eyes.
“Why,” he asked, “don’t you let me come to see you?”
I explained that I didn’t believe in God.
“Are you really so sure of that?”
I said I saw no point in troubling my head about the matter; whether I believed or didn’t was, to my mind, a question of so little importance.
He then leaned back against the wall, laying his hands flat on his thighs. Almost without seeming to address me, he remarked that he’d often noticed one fancies one is quite sure about something, when in point of fact one isn’t. When I said nothing, he looked at me again, and asked:
“Don’t you agree?”
I said that seemed quite possible. But, though I mightn’t be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn’t interest me. And the question he had raised didn’t interest me at all.
He looked away and, without altering his posture, asked if it was because I felt utterly desperate that I spoke like this. I explained that it wasn’t despair I felt, but fear—which was natural enough.
“In that case,” he said firmly, “God can help you. All the men I’ve seen in your position turned to Him in their time of trouble.”
Obviously, I replied, they were at liberty to do so, if they felt like it. I, however, didn’t want to be helped, and I hadn’t time to work up interest for something that didn’t interest me.
He fluttered his hands fretfully; then, sitting up, smoothed out his cassock. When this was done he began talking again, addressing me as “my friend.” It wasn’t because I’d been condemned to death, he said, that he spoke to me in this way. In his opinion every man on the earth was under sentence of death.
There, I interrupted him; that wasn’t the same thing, I pointed out, and, what’s more, could be no consolation.
He nodded. “Maybe. Still, if you don’t die soon, you’ll die one day. And then the same question will arise. How will you face that terrible, final hour?”
I replied that I’d face it exactly as I was facing it now.
Thereat he stood up, and looked me straight in the eyes. It was a trick I knew well. I used to amuse myself trying it on Emmanuel and Céleste, and nine times out of ten they’d look away uncomfortably. I could see the chaplain was an old hand at it, as his gaze never faltered. And his voice was quite steady when he said: “Have you no hope at all? Do you really think that when you die you die outright, and nothing remains?”
I said: “Yes.”
He dropped his eyes and sat down again. He was truly sorry for me, he said. It must make life unbearable for a man, to think as I did.
The priest was beginning to bore me, and, resting a shoulder on the wall, just beneath the little skylight, I looked away. Though I didn’t trouble much to follow what he said, I gathered he was questioning me again. Presently his tone became agitated, urgent, and, as I realized that he was genuinely distressed, I began to pay more attention.
He said he felt convinced my appeal would succeed, but I was saddled with a load of guilt, of which I must get rid. In his view man’s justice was a vain thing; only God’s justice mattered. I pointed out that the former had condemned me. Yes, he agreed, but it hadn’t absolved me from my sin. I told him that I wasn’t conscious of any “sin”; all I knew was that I’d been guilty of a criminal offense. Well, I was paying the penalty of that offense, and no one had the right to expect anything more of me.
Just then he got up again, and it struck me that if he wanted to move in this tiny cell, almost the only choice lay between standing up and sitting down. I was staring at the floor. He took a single step toward me, and halted, as if he didn’t dare to come nearer. Then he looked up through the bars at the sky.
“You’re mistaken, my son,” he said gravely. “There’s more that might be required of you. And perhaps it will be required of you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You might be asked to see …”
“To see what?”
Slowly the priest gazed round my cell, and I was struck by the sadness of his voice when he replied:
“These stone walls, I know it only too well, are steeped in human suffering. I’ve never been able to look at them without a shudder. And yet—believe me, I am speaking from the depths of my heart—I know that even the wretchedest amongst you have sometimes seen, taking form against that grayness, a divine face. It’s that face you are asked to see.”
This roused me a little. I informed him that I’d been staring at those walls for months; there was nobody, nothing in the world, I knew better than I knew them. And once upon a time, perhaps, I used to try to see a face. But it was a sun-gold face, lit up with desire—Marie’s face. I had no luck; I’d never seen it, and now I’d given up trying. Indeed, I’d never seen anything “taking form,” as he called it, against those gray walls.
The chaplain gazed at me with a sort of sadness. I now had my back to the wall and light was flowing over my forehead. He muttered some words I didn’t catch; then abruptly asked if he might kiss me. I said, “No.” Then he turned, came up to the wall, and slowly drew his hand along it.
“Do you really love these earthly things so very much?” he asked in a low voice.
I made no reply.
For quite a while he kept his eyes averted. His presence was getting more and more irksome, and I was on the point of telling him to go, and leave me in peace, when all of a sudden he swung round on me, and burst out passionately:
“No! No! I refuse to believe it. I’m sure you’ve often wished there was an afterlife.”
Of course I had, I told him. Everybody has that wish at times. But that had no more importance than wishing to be rich, or to swim very fast, or to have a better-shaped mouth. It was in the same order of things. I was going on in the same vein, when he cut in with a question. How did I picture the life after the grave?
I fairly bawled out at him: “A life in which I can remember this life on earth. That’s all I want of it.” And in the same breath I told him I’d had enough of his company.
But, apparently, he had more to say on the subject of God. I went close up to him and made a last attempt to explain that I’d very little time left, and I wasn’t going to waste it on God.
Then he tried to change the subject by asking me why I hadn’t once addressed him as “Father,” seeing that he was a priest. That irritated me still more, and I told him he wasn’t my father; quite the contrary, he was on the others’ side.
“No, no, my son,” he said, laying his hand on my shoulder. “I’m on your side, though you don’t realize it—because your heart is hardened. But I shall pray for you.”
Then, I don’t know how it was, but something seemed to break inside me, and I started yelling at the top of my voice. I hurled insults at him, I told him not to waste his rotten prayers on me; it was better to burn than to disappear. I’d taken him by the neckband of his cassock, and, in a sort of ecstasy of joy and rage, I poured out on him all the thoughts that had been simmering in my brain. He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair. Living as he did, like a corpse, he couldn’t even be sure of being alive. It might look as if my hands were empty. Actually, I was sure of myself, sure about everything, far surer than he; sure of my present life and of the death that was coming. That, no doubt, was all I had; but at least that certainty was something I could get my teeth into—just as it had got its teeth into me. I’d been right, I was still right, I was always right. I’d passed my life in a certain way, and I might have passed it in a different way, if I’d felt like it. I’d acted thus, and I hadn’t acted otherwise; I hadn’t done x,
whereas I had done y or z. And what did that mean? That, all the time, I’d been waiting for this present moment, for that dawn, tomorrow’s or another day’s, which was to justify me. Nothing, nothing had the least importance and I knew quite well why. He, too, knew why. From the dark horizon of my future a sort of slow, persistent breeze had been blowing toward me, all my life long, from the years that were to come. And on its way that breeze had leveled out all the ideas that people tried to foist on me in the equally unreal years I then was living through. What difference could they make to me, the deaths of others, or a mother’s love, or his God; or the way a man decides to live, the fate he thinks he chooses, since one and the same fate was bound to “choose” not only me but thousands of millions of privileged people who, like him, called themselves my brothers. Surely, surely he must see that? Every man alive was privileged; there was only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’. And what difference could it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he didn’t weep at his mother’s funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end? The same thing for Salamano’s wife and for Salamano’s dog. That little robot woman was as “guilty” as the girl from Paris who had married Masson, or as Marie, who wanted me to marry her. What did it matter if Raymond was as much my pal as Céleste, who was a far worthier man? What did it matter if at this very moment Marie was kissing a new boy friend? As a condemned man himself, couldn’t he grasp what I meant by that dark wind blowing from my future? …
I had been shouting so much that I’d lost my breath, and just then the jailers rushed in and started trying to release the chaplain from my grip. One of them made as if to strike me. The chaplain quietened them down, then gazed at me for a moment without speaking. I could see tears in his eyes. Then he turned and left the cell.
Once he’d gone, I felt calm again. But all this excitement had exhausted me and I dropped heavily on to my sleeping plank. I must have had a longish sleep, for, when I woke, the stars were shining down on my face. Sounds of the countryside came faintly in, and the cool night air, veined with smells’ of earth and salt, fanned my cheeks. The marvelous peace of the sleepbound summer night flooded through me like a tide. Then, just on the edge of daybreak, I heard a steamer’s siren. People were starting on a voyage to a world which had ceased to concern me forever. Almost for the first time in many months I thought of my mother. And now, it seemed to me, I understood why at her life’s end she had taken on a “fiancé”; why she’d played at making a fresh start. There, too, in that Home where lives were flickering out, the dusk came as a mournful solace. With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope,and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I’d been happy, and that I was happy still. For all to be accomplished, for me to feel less lonely, all that remained to hope was that on the day of my execution there should be a huge crowd of spectators and that they should greet me with howls of execration.