Gentlemen, my name is Jamal Ahmad. I work as a signals private in Forward Reconnaissance Unit 312, engaging the American enemy in the south.
I confess in your presence, and I am of sound mind, that I killed Salim Hussein, signals corporal in our unit. I pulled out my revolver and shot him in the head, because he was quite simply a traitor, and the penalty for treason is death.
I do not deny it, and I am prepared to defend my action regardless of the punishment you impose.
I sentenced him to death and I carried out the sentence myself, with my own weapon. That was because as I went into the signals room I caught him speaking to an American intelligence officer. It was at noon on Monday, and I could not bear listening to him spouting abuse and filth. I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning army revolver. I fired three shots at him. I aimed right at his body so that one bullet lodged in his forehead and one in his heart, and I fired one at his balls.
I wanted to emasculate him because a traitor is not a man, and therefore has no right to die a man. These are the ethical values of we Arabs. Honour and the land above all. Whoever betrays honour has to die without balls, and whoever betrays the land has to die without a grave.
Gentlemen, I did him no wrong by this action, none. I went through an agony of reflection before I proceeded to kill him. I lost the ability to sleep, and for two months I didn’t sleep a wink. I even held a trial in my head. In my imagination I even gave him a lawyer. But in the end, I reached the conclusion that he was a traitor, and there is no escaping the fact that the penalty for treason is death.
I bid you, Gentlemen, not to imagine that the treason of the signals corporal in our unit is an enigma. I came upon him on Tuesday evening, and found him communicating with the Americans and giving them the coordinates of many military positions. I heard him with my own two ears, which will be eaten by worms after I die. I saw him with my own two eyes as he was committing an act of treason in front of me, without batting an eyelid about what he was doing.
He is quite simply a spy, and when I confronted him about it he confessed that he was a spy working for the Americans. But he felt remorse for what he had done or was afraid of being denounced. He asked me to shoot him once in the head. It would be a bullet of mercy, so I pulled out my 9 mm calibre Browning revolver and fired one shot. He fell to the ground.
Yes, one shot to the head was enough to kill him, and I don’t know about the other two shots. There was no need for more shots to kill the traitor, for the only punishment for a traitor is death as you know. I don’t suppose anyone in the whole world would dispute that.
Gentlemen, honour is our most precious asset. As you know, I am an honourable and courageous soldier, and so my military honour could not abide me coming across a traitor and a spy for the Americans in our unit and my not carrying out the sentence of death. There is no enigma about it at all, as I have explained to you. I came across him in the signals room and saw him laughing and speaking English with an American officer. I confronted him with the matter. He denied it however. He said he was talking to a certain corporal Adil in the Construction Unit who, like him, was practising speaking English. I knew that he wanted to deceive me. At that moment, Gentlemen, I did not have my revolver with me. But I looked to the right of the radio and noticed on the chair his 9 mm calibre Browning revolver. He sensed the danger and as he reached to get hold of it I pounced on it and snatched it from his grasp. I took two steps back. He stood there speechless, and I fired two shots straight at him, one at his heart, and the other to his balls, because a traitor is not a man.
I don’t know anything about the bullet that hit him in the head.
At that moment Signals Private Wahid came in. He came in immediately after hearing the shot that had been fired and saw the traitor spread out on the ground and me with the revolver in my hand. He was an eye-witness any way, and I suppose he told you that he entered the place after hearing the shot and found the corporal dead.
But what he said afterwards is not correct. I was not in the room at the initial moment. I was passing by in the corridor that led to the officer’s room and I passed the signals room by chance and heard Corporal Wahid asking me to come in. When I went in I found him shaking and in tears. I asked him what was wrong, and he said he had betrayed his military unit and had sullied his military honour. He had, in exchange for a sum of money, given the Americans the coordinates to enable American planes to bomb Iraqi forces. He was full of remorse for this and had decided to kill himself. I handed him my military revolver, and he took it from me with assurance. He stood in front of me, placed the revolver to his temple and fired one shot. He fell to the ground, the revolver in his hand. Then Signals Private Wahid came in. He had been smoking outside the signals room and found me standing there unarmed. The signals corporal had fallen to the ground, the revolver in his hand.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is an ignorant fellow. He can neither read nor write. He is a peasant from the south who knows no English and does not know whether the signals corporal was speaking with the Americans or with one of his friends in the Construction Unit. But this issue does not fool me at all. I was standing near the signals room and heard strange sounds and an argument going on inside between Signals Corporal Salim and Private Wahid. The signals corporal was receiving telegrams from an unknown source, probably the Americans. In the course of the argument a shot was fired from Private Wahid’s revolver that hit the signals corporal in his balls. Private Wahid accused the signals corporal of having relations with his wife when he had sent her via him a sum of money two months earlier. The traitor had taken advantage of this and had had relations with Private Wahid’s wife, as Private Wahid himself confirmed.
You know, Gentlemen, that Private Wahid is lying when he says that the signals corporal was not speaking with the Americans. He said that he was on duty; that he was speaking with a soldier he knew in the Construction Brigade; that Corporal Wahid was asleep; and that it was me who went in and woke him up and accused him of having had relations with my wife when I asked him to take my salary to her when he was on regular leave.
It’s not like that. First of all, she isn’t my wife but Private Wahid’s wife, the man who accused him of treason. But afterwards I discovered that he had been talking with the Americans in English, and so, Gentlemen, I have not broken the law, but enforced it. The penalty for treason is death. When I caught him betraying Private Wahid and spying for the Americans, he stammered to begin with, then firmly denied it. He thought that I might let him get away with it. I said to him, “I’m not getting my own back on you, but there will be someone who does enforce the law against you.” I handed over my revolver to Private Wahid, and said to him, “Avenge your honour; this is the man who sullied your honour.”
As soon as Corporal Salim turned round, Private Wahid surprised him with a bullet to his heart. I took the revolver from Wahid and fired two shots, one at his balls so he would die without his manhood, and the other at his temple to kill him off.
The traitor, Gentlemen, deserved to die without mercy. These are our laws. He was not a human being, but a louse that had to be crushed!
Gentlemen, I am an honourable soldier. There is not a speck of dust on my honour. I have done nothing in my life out of order. It is now autumn, and this is the second year of my military service, and I don’t know why you have sent for me.
I don’t have any money and I don’t have any hopes. I never made contact with the Americans. Everything they have said about me is a fabrication to embarrass me in public, a character assassination. I did not kill Signals Corporal Salim because of a woman. The woman is my wife and not the wife of Private Wahid. He was not there and I don’t know who brought him as a witness. He did not see a thing. I have been living an insult for a long time, Gentlemen. My wife betrayed me and sullied my honour while I was here defending the honour of the fatherland. She deserved to die.
As for the signals corporal, I don’t know who killed him. Perhaps Private Wahid because one of those two was committing treason and spying for the Americans.
Much has happened to me whose meaning or causes I do not understand. The signals corporal tormented me for ages. He told me that to be a soldier in signals you had to have a voice that did not jar. You had to open your mouth and breathe out from your lungs as if you were singing. It was not necessary to speak but you had to know what you were saying.
Gentlemen, he threatened me because I was not proficient in my work. He said he would kill me and dance on my rotten corpse. He used to shout at me whenever I made a mistake in relaying messages among the officers. He spat at me. He kicked me in the stomach.
I am a humble private, Gentlemen. I haven’t slept for two months, since the beginning of the American invasion to this day. Everyone has ganged up against me: Time, Fate, the Americans, the signals corporal and my wife.
“Well then tell her that she intends to get out of here, mister,” the Israeli policeman called out. He was standing, arms folded, at one entrance to Mandelbaum Gate when I explained to him that we had come with my mother who intended to go through after being allowed to pass. I pointed over the Jordanian side of the gate.
That was at the end of the winter. The sun was hinting at spring. The dust between the mounds of rubble was covered in green. Rubble heaps to the right, mounds of rubble to the left. Children with pe’ot (side curls) playing amidst the piles and the green stirred a sense of wonder in our children’s hearts. Our kids had come with us in order to say goodbye to their grandmother. “Children and hair braids – how on earth?!”
In the heart of that old neighborhood we always called “Musrara”, there was an expanse of dusty asphalt which formed a wide courtyard. It was marked off by two doorways: the “here” door and the “there” door. These gates were made of stones from ruins and flattened tin, and were whitewashed by plaster. Each was wide enough to ensure proper passage for the “exiting” or the “entering” car.
Stressing the word “exit”, the guard said, as if he wanted to teach me a lesson; “What’s important is leaving the Garden of Eden, not getting in over “there”.” The customs officer did not want us to miss the lesson either. When everyone was kissing mother goodbye, he said: “Whoever exits from here never comes back”.
And I think that such unsettling thoughts also plagued mother during her last days with us. When our close friends and family members gathered the night before the trip to Jerusalem she said, “I lived in order to see my mourners (those who would eulogize me) with my own eyes.” And in the morning when we slid down the sloped alley to the car, she turned her gaze behind and gestured toward the olive and apricot trees at the door of her house, musing, “Twenty years I’ve lived here, and who can count the number of times I’ve gone up and down this alley!”
And when the car passed by the cemetery on the outskirts of town she turned to her deceased dear ones and let out, like an inner whisper, “Why isn’t it my fortune to be buried here? And who will place flowers on my granddaughter’s grave?”
In 1940, when she had gone up to Jerusalem, a fortune teller had told her that it would be her fate to die in the holy city. Would his prophecy come true in the end?
She was seventy-five back then and had not yet experienced this feeling of terror that was taking over her heart and injecting utter emptiness into her soul; a feeling like the pangs of a suffering conscience – missing one’s homeland. And if one were to ask her, for example, to explain the meaning of the word “homeland”, she would undoubtedly become confused just as she did that time she first came across the word in her prayer book and didn’t know whether to say it meant house, or at a minimum, laundry tub. Or perhaps it meant the piece of land – the Kuba crater – that had come down to her from mother (her friends laughed at her when she wanted to take the laundry tub with her but she did not even dare to think of the Kuba crater). Or maybe “homeland” was the cries of the milkman that came with the dawn, or the din-don of the oil vendor’s bell, or her sick husband’s coughing voice, or nights like the nights when her children were home – those who had gone with their families and abandoned her doorstep, leaving her alone.
Of all places, this lintel was her house’s doorstep, the one on which her last gaze rested, and the one that was privy and could attest to the countless times she stood on it, day in, day out – to see her children off, having gladdened their hearts, or to sing them a song; a tender, mother’s song, with tears in her eyes:
Dark-feathered chick, your expression grew
Into that of a bird; to sing and to nest were your teachings
Now you have grown, your wings have lifted your feathers,
You have flown, and I troubled over you for nought.
Even if she were told that “homeland” was each and every one of these things all together, the term’s riddle would not have been solved. But now, when her legs are stepping over to the “no-man’s land” and she is expecting them to let her move and step forward – now she turns to her daughter and says, “How my soul yearned to sit and rest, if only one more time, on that lintel!” Her elderly brother, who had troubled himself to come from the village to part from her, gave an instant nod, his face pained and puzzled. For indeed, this was the mysterious thing which caused him to mourn and his sister to suffer; that which she could not uproot from the ground and take with her – this thing that was most dear to his heart as well. A neighbor of ours said to him: “When all’s said and done you’ll be forced to sign on to their vendor’s contract. The law’s on their side!”
But the old man turned to me and said: “Listen, my dear, one day my father, my younger brother, and I were watching over the field. Suddenly a flock of thrushes engulfed the field. My little brother took a hunting rifle in his hands, to show that he was a real man. A loud laugh burst from my father (you remember how your grandfather laughed, my dear?). When he saw the son of his old age thus, he called out, “Hunting thrushes is a man’s job, my boy!”
But the little one was immensely stubborn. He held on to the rifle without relaxing a muscle. Sometime later he came back with a live thrush in the palm of his hand. The wonder of wonders! We were dumbfounded. And he, the little wild thing, was jumping with excitement. He was so proud of this chance to hunt that had come his way. “But we didn’t hear the gun shot!” my father called out, to which the little hunter replied, “I put a spell on the rifle, Dad!” And my father and my father’s fathers made me swear never to tell his secret – which was: he saw the thrush in danger when it was caught between the teeth of a big cat. Without a second thought, the boy bolted after the cat amid the boulders and the corn stalks, until he caught it and rescued the feathered thing from the predatory jaws.. .voila! And they expect me to sign on to a contract to sell (out) these memories? They have no power in their laws to do such a thing – none!
My advice to you is not to come to Mandelbaum Gate with your children. And it’s not because the ruined houses fascinate or entice them to cast about inside for a magic lamp or adventures like Aladdin’s. In fact, it’s not even because of the Hasidim’s waving sidecurls (pe’ot) that cause children to ask intriguing questions. They shouldn’t come with you because the road that leads to Mandelbaum Gate does not stop at it, even for a fleeting second, for those entering “there” or exiting “here”. There are American luxury cars whose passengers are healthy and dressed up, either with a blaze of color around their necks or in their army uniforms.
There are the cars of the “cease-fire people”, and of groups of U.N. inspectors. The rest of the passengers are ambassadors and representatives of Western states, with their presidents and their presidents’ cooks, their drinks, and their beautiful women. They do stop briefly by “our gate” so their drivers can exchange greetings with “our” guard — as cultured people do. And after passing through the no-man’s land, they stop briefly by “their gate” and exchange greetings with “their policemen” too, such that in this space of good manners and culture there is a back-and-forth Israeli-Jordanian competition.
The “he who goes from here” death sentence does not fall on these travelers; nor do they come under the Garden of Eden law of “he who enters does not leave.” For this way the honored observer can take lunch at the “Philadelphia” hotel over there, and dinner at the “Eden” hotel on this side, while his smile never skips off his face.
When my sister turned to the soldier – to the one who stands by “our gate,” to ask his permission to accompany mother to the Jordanian gate, he replied: “It’s forbidden Ma’am.” But I see those foreigners entering and leaving as if this were their home!” “Everyone is allowed to pass through these gates except Jews and Arabs. Except for the natives, my good lady.” He then said, “I must ask you to move out of the street. This is a main road bustling with traffic -.” He broke off in mid-sentence to joke with the passengers of a car pulling up (was it an “exiting” or an “entering” car?)
But we didn’t see what was funny here.
“Everything comes to an end, even in a time of parting!” said the customs official. An old woman leaning on a stick set out from “our gate” in the direction of “their gate.” She slowly crossed the “no-man’s land,” turning her head back from minute to minute, waving her hand and advancing further. And why should it be precisely now that her conscience knocks at her?
A soldier in a kaffiya and band burst out from among the ruins on the opposite side. He approached the old woman who was entering and stopped to snatch a bit of conversation with her. The two of them looked over to our side. We stood here with the children waving our hands. A soldier who looked deprived because of his exposed head stood in front of us and talked with us as well. He repeated that it was forbidden to go one step further.
Why did he say, “It’s as if she’s crossed the Valley of Death from which we don’t come back. That’s the reality of war; borders and Mandelbaum Gate. I must ask you to move over to the other side of the U.N. car”?
And suddenly a small body, squirming with life sprang out — leaped like a ball thrust into the air by a soccer game kick, streaking conspicuously towards the rival team’s goal post. The body leaped out and started to run ahead of us, cutting across the “no man’s land.” With a shock we realized that this was none other than my little daughter running after her grandmother, yelling, “Grandma! Grandma!” Look – the “no-man’s land” is already behind her and she’s reaching Grandmother..and Grandma is lifting her up in her arms.
From afar we saw how the soldier in the kaffiya was looking at the ground. My eyes were moist and I can attest that the soldier stood there pecking at the ground with his foot. And as for the soldier who stood with us, he also lowered his head and started scuffing the ground. The guard who was standing by the office doing nothing faded back and went inside. The customs official started looking for something in his pocket which he had apparently lost all of a sudden…
A great miracle happened here. A little girl cut across the Valley of Death from which none return. And see, in spite of everything she does come back to us crowned with triumph over the present reality of war, borders, and Mandelbaum Gate.
A girl ignorant of all of this, who doesn’t understand the real difference between the soldier in the kaffiya, and this one here with no head covering. A small, innocent girl! And because in those days there were no open hostilities towards the remote lands, how could the silly little one not think, as she was accustomed to, that she was still in her country? Here she saw her father stand on one side and her grandmother on the other. Here were cars galloping back and forth across the “no-man’s land” just like they did by her house. Here people speak Hebrew, there they speak Arabic. And therefore she speaks in the two languages, in the one with her great-grandson and in the other with his horse. The customs official despaired, it seemed, of finding the thing he had lost (there is an end to everything, even to embarrassment), for he suddenly stopped the exhausting search, moved in his place, and said to the soldier as if to comfort him: “an innocent child.” “I must ask you, good people, to move away from the street lest one of your children fall between the wheels of the stampeding cars.”
And he moved back first.
Do you understand, therefore, why I advised you not to come to Mandelbaum Gate accompanied by your children? Their logic is so simple and uncomplicated, but so healthy!
*Translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Sasson Somekh, 1955
**Reprinted in Iton 77 No. 196, May 1996. 18-19
***Translated from Hebrew into English by Stacy N. Beckwith, August 1999
As I was sitting in a taxi stuck in a queue of cars at the Atara Israeli army checkpoint, heading to Nablus to meet a beautiful widow I’d got to know on Facebook, it struck me that the timing of my trip to Nablus that day was unfortunate – there had been a martyrdom operation at the Atara checkpoint and some settlers had been killed.
There were extra checkpoints on the roads and the settlers were fuming. But being impetuous and impatient by nature, I still longed to meet the widow who had written that she wanted to tell me her life story so that I could turn it into a novel. She wanted to spare me the trouble of imagining surreal scenes, because her life was one long surrealist episode. “You just write it down,” she said. “The crazy events are already there. All they need from you is a little reworking and structure, and a bit of polish here and there.”
I was eager to meet her. Not to hear her stories, as it might have seemed from my reply to her: “Every month, I get dozens of messages from women I don’t know, who write telling me about their lives that would make perfect material for a novel,” but at the prospect of having her. Such deceptive backstories were often an avenue to wild sex.
The taxi inched forward. Over the shoulders of the passengers in front of me I could see Israeli soldiers slapping some young guys. I checked my wallet to make sure I hadn’t forgotten my ID card.
I trembled in shame and fear in front of the soldiers when they asked me to lift up my shirt so they could make sure I didn’t have explosives strapped around my waist. I politely refused. They asked to drop my trousers a little below the waist. I was so appalled, I almost fell over. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey soldier, I am a Palestinian man who writes short stories.”
The soldier gazed at my face: “But I don’t like short stories, I like long ones. It’s not your lucky day.”
The situation was excruciating. Behind me were hundreds of vehicles with their drivers and passengers, all staring at what was happening up ahead. I could practically hear them saying the same thing, “Disgraceful!”
A soldier, who didn’t like short stories, holding a truncheon, boredom already in his eyes and who thought he knew it all, was in my face. He asked me again to drop my trousers, to be extra certain of my innocence. At that point, I nearly fell over in terror. I knew I had to do something.
“Hey solider, have you read the book The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God by Etgar Keret?”
“What did you say? Etgar Keret? Have you really read Etgar Keret? Ooh, you like him then. That’s good enough. Off you go! Go on!”
That’s how I got away thanks to Etgar Keret, the famous Israeli writer, some of whose stories I had read in Arabic translation. I decided to use the same ploy at every Israeli army checkpoint to escape being humiliated by the soldiers. The taxi continued slowly on its way behind hundreds of other cars until Uyun al-Haramiya checkpoint where I took out my ID in readiness for further humiliation.
The solider was very tall and very blond. He looked to be in his thirties. In his blue eyes I could see he had read dozens of stories by Etgar Keret. I could hear voices telling me he had been influenced and astonished by Keret’s fictional world.
“Where are you going?”
“Who exactly are you going to see?”
“I’m going to see a beautiful widow.”
“What are you going to talk about?”
“About our lives, about literature, and maybe about sex.”
“We’re going to discuss the stories of the Israeli writer Etgar Keret.”
Having said that, I expected to be let go or his face to show skepticism, but he carried on with his high-handed questions about my trip to Nablus. It dawned on me that Etgar Keret wasn’t going to save me this time. The soldier told me to go back to the cars and tell the drivers to turn off their engines.
That was the height of contempt for a short story writer who preferred death rather than carry out such an order. My blood started to boil.
“Hey soldier, I can’t carry out your order. I’m a short story writer, and short story writers don’t carry out soldiers’ orders.”
Blows and kicks rained down. From down below and up above, dozens of soldiers’ feet and fists pounded my face, my back and my stomach with kicks and punches… I came to in the arms of Palestinian passengers who picked me up and took me to a car whose driver had volunteered to take me to the nearest hospital.
At the entrance to Ramallah Hospital, occupation soldiers were setting up a checkpoint to search people going in and out. They pointed their guns at my head, which was bleeding.
“Where are you going?”
“To get treatment.”
“Who hit you?”
“Haters of the short story who haven’t read Etgar Keret.”
“Etgar Keret? Ooh, we like that writer. But how come you know him?”
“That’s a long story! Let me go in so they can stop my head bleeding.”
Inside the hospital in another bed near mine, lay a beautiful woman. She too had cuts to her head.
“Where are you from, Madam, and how did you get those cuts to your head?”
“The soldiers at the Atara checkpoint split my head open because I refused an intrusive search, one demeaning to a widow going to meet a famous writer who volunteered to turn her fascinating life story into a surrealist novel.”
The low sun, the brass bands, the President’s face blazing with self-confidence. Everyone over thirty can still bring the images to mind. The President, who was on an official visit to Afrasia, a turbulent and largely corrupt country with which he wished to strengthen diplomatic relations. The President who, perturbed by the decrease in his popularity and by criticisms of his supposedly anti-African policies, wanted it to be seen that he did not feel disdain for the native population and their customs.
Flanked by his security forces he stepped out of his armoured vehicle to stroll through the narrow streets of Afraat. He was smiling.
I remember that large, unwieldy body falling backwards when the bullet hit him, I remember the bodyguards rushing to cover him, to no avail, I remember the feet of this once powerful man, limp and lifeless. 5th May, 2017, five five, a date now branded into the history books.
By that evening it was already clear that the assassination had been carried out by a twenty-five year old white man, born in the United States but living in Afrasia for the past few months as an exchange student. Within a short space of time his surname, Goldstein, was abbreviated to G. G., who had altered the course of world history, twenty years ago, when he took the life of the President of the United States of America with a single shot.
In spite of strong diplomatic pressure the Afrasian government had refused to simply hand G. over. They locked him up in a maximum security prison, hoping that the new US President would do a deal with them. Journalists from every country in the world wanted to interview G. Someone like me wouldn’t have the slightest chance, and nothing was going to change that fact. That, at least, was what I expected.
But yet another President was elected, someone who had little interest in the drawn-out affair the assassination had become. When it became apparent that the preferential arrangements the Afrasians had hoped for would never materialize, the ties between the two countries were officially cut. That was the point at which G. lost his political value, and many journalists lost interest in him. In the end I was the only one who still persisted. For months I corresponded with the relevant Prison Governor, until he finally agreed to permit direct contact with G., allowing an exchange of letters. That was three years ago. For three whole years I’ve been trying to win G.’s trust and although the tone of the letters was rather impersonal at first, slowly they began to show signs of warmth, of friendship even. When it was his birthday, I would ask how it had been celebrated. And he’d enquire about my wife, my career, my life in general. I was honest with him. Perhaps too honest.
I’d almost stopped hoping for an actual meeting, but then last month I received an official-looking letter. G. had managed to persuade the governing board of the prison to agree to a meeting. I would be allowed to interview him for an hour. That is why I’m here today, walking through that menacing iron gate, handing in my keys and phone, being frisked and scanned.
I am escorted to a white, ice-cold room, in the middle of which stands a small metal table. Above the table there’s a fluorescent strip-light, to my left a large mirror behind which the Governor is probably standing, surrounded by officers who could halt the conversation at any point. I sit down at the table, on one of two metal stools. The waiting for G. begins, the wait for the very first interview with the President’s assassin.
From a journalistic perspective G. remains an interesting figure. Books and academic papers have been written about him, a biopic came out last year. But my interest in the man isn’t purely journalistic. I can still remember exactly how I felt when the President came into power, when he bent the constitution to his will, violated international treaties, demeaned large groups of people, destroyed the country’s reputation. Gripped by a sense of impotence, immensely disorientated, I felt myself becoming part of history.
For months I’d asked myself what I could do to get rid of that feeling, how I could best articulate my anxieties. I started writing: letters to newspaper editors, and then opinion pieces. I wrote and printed pamphlets to hand out at demonstrations. If the President hadn’t been elected, I would probably still be working for a printing firm, counting the minutes till the next coffee break. When my pieces began to be published on a regular basis, I quit my job to devote myself entirely to writing. But the more I wrote, the greater my realization that my words weren’t getting through to the White House, not even close. The President didn’t hear and continued to rule, unscathed. But how else could I express my anger? Was there some kind of act that could compel what words could not compel: the fall of the President?
That kind of act existed, of course it did. I remember an Irish magazine cover from that period. It showed an image of the President’s head behind the cross-hairs of a hypothetical sniper. The headline: Why Not? In the article that went with it, the Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas was cited. He said that someone who killed a tyrant to save his land deserved nothing but praise. The case of Cassius and Brutus was examined, who had found reasons to kill Caesar, the dictator who had brought the Roman Republic to an end. The standpoint of utilitarian philosophers was also discussed: they believed that the correctness of an action was entirely determined by its ends. If an evil act led to an increase of happiness for a great number of people, could it still be described as evil? With hindsight this was how the theoretical framework for the forthcoming assassination was established. And two months later G. matched the deed to the word. The President collapsed, the bodyguards flung themselves over him, it was too late. I stared at the television, stunned, not knowing whether to weep or cheer.
Footsteps in the corridor. Six feet, three people. The light shining under the door is broken by shadows. A prison guard enters, and then G. appears. He sits down opposite me. The guards go and stand by the door, their arms folded. There he is, the physical, mortal, older version of G., as the world knows him. His eyes are more sunken than they used to be, and compared to the few photos of him in the papers, he has lost weight. He says that it took some doing but here we are at last, sitting opposite each other. His voice, which I’ve never heard before, is soft and melodious. His language is the same as in his letters: that feeling for understatement, that lightly archaic choice of words. All those hours I’ve thought about the first question I’ll ask him. And now I’m here I hear myself say: How are things for you now?
G.: ‘I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t answer that question. It’s the only question that anyone here still asks me, and then it’s just the welfare officer, who is obliged to ask occasionally, although my answer doesn’t interest him. In other words, the question has become a caricature. My answer, moreover, would be meaningless. You can probably imagine what kind of quality of life a presidential assassin is permitted. And if you can’t, then you’re lucky.’
You’ve been a prisoner for exactly twenty years. Can you still remember the day that brought you here?
‘I think everyone can still remember that day. But my memories will differ from most. I saw no television images afterwards, no programmes which endlessly analyzed the act. What I remember is the walk to the building I would shoot from, to the window I knew wouldn’t be properly checked, because of its so-called unrealistic position. Every step I took had been measured and calculated in advance. I only had to set in motion the actions I had so often imagined. It was as if I was sleepwalking. I sleepwalked to the window, took out the gun, put the end of the barrel on the window frame, between those two shards of glass that caught the sun. As you probably realize, I knew that building very well. The university was situated in the same quarter. I had carefully prepared myself, studying hundreds of clips on the internet, taking notes. I’d practised in forests, in the desert. The weapon, obtained from the dark web, was easy to operate, which is why I had chosen it. The President was less than forty metres away from my window. Even for someone who had never previously aimed at a living being, it was not a difficult shot. I waited and pulled the trigger at the right moment. That is my version of the day.’
And the arrest? What do you still recall of that?
‘All arrests are the same in principle. Shouting, handcuffs, a police van.’
Well, the aftermath then. It was striking that you never opposed the charges. Statements to the outside world would emerge every so often, in which you claimed responsibility for the act without ever displaying a grain of remorse.
‘Would remorse, whether feigned or not, have made the slightest difference? Before carrying out the assassination, I was not the typical future murderer. I harboured no violent fantasies or aggressive dreams. I paid my taxes. I walked the neighbour’s dog when necessary. I was an excellent student. I had never even touched a gun. In the years before this President emerged, my engagement with politics had been limited. Well, you’re familiar with my file. I had no peculiar or distorted picture of the value of life. I knew exactly what was entailed. I knew I would deprive someone of his life, that I would make his children orphans and his wife a widow. But I consider it a question of politeness not to lament matters after the act, nor to display obscene pangs of remorse. If I have these, then I suffer them alone, in my cell.’
No regrets, then? Never?
It is extremely difficult to feel sympathy for someone who shows no remorse.
‘If I attached much value to a positive image, I would probably not have assassinated the leader of the free world. I ask for no one’s sympathy.’
Did you realize what the assassination would bring about?
I did not know exactly what would happen, but I considered it likely that matters would improve with someone else at the helm. And I believe that history has proved me right. Of course, massive global problems still remain, but that period of mounting chaos, the utter lawlessness that could have been unleashed at any point, those are behind us now. The world is better for it.’
Just before the assassination you wrote a manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future. When it became apparent that the manifesto had been written by the President’s assassin, it was published as a supplement in a number of the more important newspapers. Somewhere in that manifesto you write: ‘Think of history as being the sum of two components: an erratic component that consists of unpredictable events that follow no discernible pattern, and a regular component that consists of long-term historical trends.’ 1
To which component do you feel your act belongs?
‘That is a difficult question. An attempted assassination is, of course, an unpredictable event. That is more or less its essence. On the other hand, history is full of examples of the assassination of autocrats and despots. There is even a word for it: tyrannicide. Many philosophers believe that it is not only desirable but legitimate to kill a despot who consistently acts against the interests of his own subjects, who creates and extends his own mandate. According to John of Salisbury, a twelfth-century philosopher, the state can be seen as a political organism in which all the members and organs of the body actively cooperate, for each other’s benefit and for the greater whole. If one of the organs no longer carries out its function, paying no further attention to the rest of the body, it is the duty of the body to reject the diseased part. You are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, of course? The eagle imprinted on all documents of state? Do you know what Benjamin Franklin suggested as its motto? “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God”.’
But however you twist the matter, the President’s mandate was not created by himself. He was democratically elected.
‘He received around three million fewer votes than the opposing candidate. Moreover, the democratic vote is not a valid excuse. Hitler was also democratically elected. Is an elected tyrant so much better than a tyrant who just takes over? The democratic vote grants legitimacy to the very first day that the President is in office; thereafter he must earn his legitimacy himself, through his words and deeds. The President in question paid no attention to international treaties, national laws, or universal values. And make no mistake, the body certainly did rebel. Can you not remember the demonstrations, the protests, the resistance, the chaos in the stock markets? The body was suffering from a high, life-threatening fever that would quite possibly lead to its death.’
Do you have the feeling that the political and social climate of that era influenced your act?
It is difficult to say. It was not so much that I was influenced by that climate, as that I gave it shape. Undoubtedly the fever, as I prefer to call it, did have an influence on me. But nowadays my act is seen as the ultimate manifestation of that fever, its hysterical climax. That’s not the way I see it. My act was rational and considered. It was the act of a surgeon who had carefully and calmly studied the body and knew that the moment for action had arrived.’
The President’s supporters later claimed that the bullet came from the left, because of your former left-leaning sympathies.
‘I have always considered that a nonsensical and misleading idea. Left has nothing at all do with my actions. There is no political tendency or group that can be held responsible for what I did. I pulled the trigger; I, and I alone.’
You sacrificed yourself.
‘That is a very melodramatic way of representing it. Many people saw that something had to happen. In your letters you wrote that you were one of these. But I was the only one who decided on that particular day that the something would be an assassination. And to this very day I think I was right.’
Could you explain in two sentences why you carried out this act?
At a certain point apathy shades into complicity. I saw him behave exactly as he pleased and I knew it was more evil to conform to that narrow Christian commandment, Thou shalt not kill, than to take up the gauntlet myself. That realization weighed more heavily on me as each day passed. There were, of course, many people who thought as I did, but none of them lived where I lived, none of them knew the area the President would visit. Someone had to do it and I was the obvious person. Were those two sentences?
Your action understandably aroused extreme reactions. Many were overjoyed by the President’s death, others demanded nothing less than the death penalty for you.
‘That reaction is one I have always found extraordinarily ironic. But then, those who clamoured for blood – in the Biblical sense – had every right to speak. I had assassinated their President, with malice aforethought. Although I immediately confessed my guilt, I showed no remorse. If there ever was a perfect candidate for the chair, then I was it. And I was and am prepared to accept any kind of punishment, and also to defend my actions in an American court. It is not my fault that I have never been handed over.’
But that is the only reason why you’re still alive.
‘A heartbeat does not always signify life.’
‘Just fifteen more minutes,’ the guard says. The announcement leads to a change in G.’s manner. He leans back and asks me why I made no reaction to his earlier comment, that I was one of the people who had felt something had to happen. This is the first time he has taken the initiative, breaking with his superior but somewhat passive mode of response. He asks why I continued to press for an interview with him. Why all the other journalists gave up in the course of time, but I didn’t. I answer that it was my duty as a journalist to persist. He shakes his head. ‘That is not the real reason.’
I consider myself to be a witness to your deed. At that time, I barely slept at all. I was glued to the television.
‘That isn’t the real reason either.’
‘What is the real reason then, according to you?’
‘Let me ask you a question. When you saw the President collapse, when you saw that brute writhing, when you saw all that perverse power vanish in an instant, what did you think then? Or rather, what did you feel?
I was stunned. I felt so many things at once, and nothing in particular.
‘Did you ever write about it?’
The Governor sometimes permits me to use the internet, you know, under strict supervision. I noticed that when the President was still alive your work could be described as politically engaged, very engaged indeed. You were deeply concerned. You knew that the world would be better off with a different President. But after the assassination you never wrote anything political again. You wrote about universities, sport, books, science, in fact about everything except politics. My act was a breaking point in your career. You know what I think? I think that my actions made you realize the relativity of your own words. And that is perfectly understandable. An act does what no word ever can: it changes the world.’
‘Five minutes,’ the guard says. ‘Wrap it up now.’
Just five more minutes. It probably won’t be easy to get another chance to speak to him. Perhaps I never shall. But before I can react to G.’s analysis, he says that he already knows what my last question will be: how could someone like him, educated and from a good middle class background, possibly carry out such a deed? How did he end up on that side of the table? ‘But actually you’d like to ask me a different question,’ he continues. ‘In the depths of your soul, what you would actually like to ask is how I’ve ended up on this side of the table and how you, with near enough the same ideals, convictions and anxieties as myself, have continued to sit on the other side.’
I find it hard to breathe and am barely aware that I’m nodding. Indeed, how has that happened?
‘Are you sure you want to hear this? The answer is actually quite simple.’
Although I am not at all sure I want to hear it, I can’t retreat. I nod again.
‘Even for people who are truly engaged, the question remains what form of engagement best suits them. Naturally, that is also a question of effectiveness: which form of engagement seems to offer them the greatest chance of success, etcetera. I immersed myself in learning about guns and marksmen, but I don’t think I spent more hours on my training than you did in watching satiric internet clips. The final choice of form is deeper, more personal, more irrational than these practical considerations. There is no fundamental, unbridgeable difference between you and me. I knew the neighbourhood. You didn’t. The fact that I’m sitting here and you there is a question of taste and chance. Nothing more or less.’
Before I can disagree with him, the guard tells us our time is up. G. doesn’t say goodbye and doesn’t look back as he is led away. When they turn right, I catch a flash of his profile, the pronounced nose, and that mysterious smile which for the rest of my life will make me ask: did it express cruelty or perhaps, after all, compassion?
The sands lolled and swam in the sun’s blazing rays all day, then when darkness fell, they patiently waited for the sun to rise. As far as the eye could see, the sands swelled in every direction, wild and silent. It even felt like they were stealthily watching us. Everyone except the leader and I slept like the dead. We had walked barefoot the whole day, but the journey ahead was still long. The sun had hollowed faces and etched deep lines; lips were painted the color of ash.
Life became nothing but a dark tunnel. The mothers’ milk had dried out, none of them had eaten since yesterday. Emaciated and pallid, hunger shone from their vacant eyes. Returning home was a forlorn hope because home was gone. Chased by fatigue, thirst and hunger, we fled amid the growing clamor of children crying. I heard fear in their panicked screams, perhaps alarm at a threat not visible to us, the adults. Their ribs clearly defined, the children wept with tearless eyes and pinched faces anything but childlike. Hunger and the strong rays of the sun had robbed them of their vitality during the arduous journey.
The boundless sands merged with the horizon to make the desert in front of us unending. No hint of clouds absorbed the blazing heat. The drought had invaded valleys where mirages shimmered. Drought and war had crushed even the most resilient desert plants.
The leader was a tall imposing man who watched the group closely as they walked. He was silent and fearless but helpful to all and with respect for everyone. Now he spoke of fortitude, his voice kind and gentle. “Now, we eat. Then we must continue marching.”
Then the leader went to pray. In a clear voice, he recited his prayers and asked Allah to ease the sufferings of the journey, bless the children and provide solace to anyone mourning the loss of their home. Then he made his own lengthy and mournful supplication.
We resumed our journey across the sands. Our group included fifty women, ten children and a pregnant woman about to give birth.
Time passed so slowly, every minute felt an eternity. We walked a long way until, in the middle of the wasteland, we reached a village. Engulfed by sand and barely visible from a distance, the village stood alone against the hellish winds of the desert. Half a dozen families inhabited the village, and they came out of their huts to welcome us. Dressed in filthy garments damp with sweat and gritty with sand, they had rifles over their shoulders. Their faces were blistered as if they had emerged from the underworld. Even more wretched than us, they had nothing to offer. Their thatched huts were the height of a man with entrances just above the dirt. There was no place for us to rest. With the emptiness still ahead, we continued crossing the vast expanse of sand. The sun crawled toward its final abode, its rays still flaming.
Our guide said to me, “Beyond that tongue of sand is the border, but first we have to pass the village of Turayba just before the border.”
We walked in silence, even the children’s screaming died out. The donkey’s hooves the only sound. The calm was shattered by a woman’s screams. It was her time to give birth.
Quickly, we picked a place to camp and set up a tent for the pregnant woman. Other women sat with her in the tent, while her mother, who said they would need hot water, lit a fire. Shortly, the pregnant woman crawled out of the tent screaming. Other women followed the trail of blood behind her. It seemed she was hemorrhaging and I asked them about her husband. They said he had died in the last attack, the one that had forced us to leave our homes. The pregnant woman was pouring with sweat. The other women gathered around her while I stood back observing the situation to see if they needed me. She gripped her mother’s arm, begging them with her eyes.
One of the women pointed at me. “Dig a hole the height of one and a half men and get a thick branch long enough to rest over the top.”
The guide and I wasted no time in digging. The pregnant woman’s moaning grew more distinct, yet sadder and deeper, and one of the women shouted, “Hurry up or she’s going to die.”
When we had finished, the oldest woman told us to tie a rope to the middle of the branch The other end of the rope was looped around the pregnant woman’s hands, so her body could be suspended inside the hole. It was my first time to see a rope delivery.
Unable to stand, the pregnant woman hemorrhaged blood all over her clothes. Her palms tied together with the rope, I carried her to the hole and lowered her down. The woman who told me to dig the hole also climbed down and sat on the bottom where she undressed the pregnant woman. The other women gathered around the edge to offer encouragement.
The woman in the hole called up to us, “It was a very difficult birth and she is still bleeding.”
Her mother was sobbing loudly, so I went over and stroked her head. “She will be all right. Pray for her.”
“Half of our women bleed to death. She will die,” said her mother.
I didn’t know what to do. My body trembled like a pigeon as our eyes, mine and the women’s, moved to the baby, who moaned softly. She was a tiny girl. Compassion tugging at me, I lifted her in my hands and hugged her as passionately as a real mother who had just given birth. Then I laid her tiny body, newly washed with blood, on a piece of cloth stretched out on the dirt inside the tent. The girl child was long and a native desert-brown color. Minutes passed like centuries, and I wished I could stay with the women inside the tent. Overwhelmed by emotion, I immersed myself in the child. Outside the tent, the new mother continued to bleed. The women tried hard to stop the bleeding with no success. The new mother stared at a point on the horizon where a mirage and false hopes shimmered. Despite the pain, she smiled. She was fifteen years old, her mother told me.
Everyone was distraught except her. Even the leader lost his patience and circled the tent like a millstone. Mute, her earthly body still, the dying woman calmly surrendered her soul to divine salvation and crossed purgatory into the Holy Kingdom. The women loudly mourned her, throwing handfuls of sand over their heads. I mourned too, but with the silence of a Darfurian man already ravaged by disaster that had left him dispossessed of his homeland, robbed of his home, and forced from his village.
Some of the women busied themselves preparing the body, while others ceaselessly wept. Then they noticed that the new-born girl was not moving. A gnarled old woman picked up the motionless child. Largely silent during the trip, she yelled now in a voice bigger than she was, “The child is dead too.”
Everyone drifted along a stream of sadness, their tears falling to the sand before being rapidly absorbed. They wrapped the body of the mother in her own clothes with the baby on her chest. Wailing, we carried the bodies to their last home, lowering them in after praying for them. I could no longer stand as I pushed the dirt into the grave, so I fell to my knees and keened at the edge. The sun had completely vanished, the darkness condensed and hid the expanse of space.
The guide said, “We have to keep marching so we reach the border quickly.”
Huddled together, we walked slowly on. The guide followed the stars, and we used the moonlight to guide our footsteps and keep us safe from the menacing darkness. War had slain the life of the desert, the ancient trees, the hardy thorn bushes that fed the cattle during drought. Everything had gone.
As we fought to resist the aching breath of the desert, the voices of our women mourned the home, the birthplace, they had fled. Everybody was hungry, children and adults alike could not bear it, and we had little food left. When most of the women were unable to keep going, I distributed a handful of dates. Their eyes followed me, speaking the language of misery. Fleeting looks, enough to translate the feelings behind them. Before the hunger could fade, thirst took its place.
We camped and lit a fire to make gruel. Hollowed out by hunger, the women worked steadily until a breathless and horrified voice from the back of the group broke the silence. The leader spun around, tripping over his own feet as he rushed to see what was wrong. I was close behind him.
“Batool!” said the woman standing near a prone body.
“Is she dead?” asked the leader.
Not replying either yes or no, the woman’s eyes overflowed with tears as she stared down at the dirt. There lay Batool on her back, eyes so wide open they were ringed in white. She seemed to be staring at the distant horizon, caught in a futile struggle to see the refugee camp beyond the mirage of the border. Her vacant stare was so strange that fear and horror percolated through me. In her last desperate expression, I saw dignity savaged by the loss of land, farm and home. She gazed at the heavens, at lost hope. Her hands clasped the sand where we buried her in a moment charged with fear and reverence. When the funeral was done, we laid a big stone on her grave.
The leader sat on a low mound staring into the vastness. “My son, most of the sand you see was once spanned by villages. Hundreds of families flourished here.” He sighed deeply and continued, “Now they’ve dissolved into nothing, forever a part of the desert.”
The leader withdrew into the darkness, and I followed him. We sat together under a sky free of clouds as the desert sank into darkness. In the face of the impenetrable silence, nothing could be heard except the sound of faith in Allah the Almighty, silent in His glory.
After midnight and before dawn, the voice calling to the journey summoned us to resume marching across purgatory till we reached salvation.
The waiter at the Café Au Chai de l’Abbaye, Claude, asked me to finish my drink quickly. It was a quarter past two in the morning and he had to close up the café. I walked a few paces and sat down in Place Furstenberg. This was where I ‘cleared’ my mind every day. Opposite me was the house in which the famous painter Delacroix had spent his last years, and which was now a museum. I started to smoke a cigarette. I thought of walking to Austerlitz, but I couldn’t sleep now, I was in such a troubled mood.
‘How long will the French go on repeating this tedious drama?’ I shouted loudly as if addressing the great painter.
I meant those enormous military parades that they put on every year. Thousands of soldiers, hundreds of tanks, rockets, and artillery, scores of planes circling in the sky, and everywhere thronged with people, with traffic policemen closing the main roads leading to the heart of Paris. All this led to complete chaos that lasted the whole day. The television channels broadcast these parades live. We could see the same pictures on the screens of hundreds of thousands of television sets displayed in the windows of electrical shops. I love France, but I never liked this day they call ‘Quatorze Juillet’ (14 July), when they celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution.
I left Place Furstenberg and decided to take a stroll around Saint-Sulpice church, waiting for dawn to break so that I could go into the first café I found open. At the end of Rue Bonaparte, where it meets Rue Vieux Colombiers, I noticed an attractive woman walking in a way that caught my attention. She was wearing white shorts that allowed one to see her sturdy legs. I guessed that she was nearing fifty. As the distance between us narrowed, I thought she looked sad. Without expecting any reply, I asked her, ‘Why are you sad, madame?’ I was drunk, and it was nearly three in the morning.
The woman stopped. ‘Yes, I am very sad, monsieur,’ she said, trying to put on a little smile.
‘I am very sorry, madame,’ I said.
‘I lost my little dog on quatorze juillet, monsieur,’ she explained. ‘Isn’t that sad?’ she added in a coquettish way, licking her lips and pouting.
‘And I lost my country on quatorze juillet, madame, isn’t that sad?’ I said sarcastically.
She laughed and closed her eyes flirtatiously, ‘And how did that happen?’ she asked.
‘It’s a long story, madame.’
The woman remained silent for a moment, then said, ‘Listen, would you like to have a drink with me? I know a place that stays open till dawn.’
We crossed Boulevard Saint-Germain and walked on past the church. ‘I live on this boulevard,’ she said. ‘Isn’t it wonderful for someone to live in this quarter?’
‘It’s just a dream, as far as I’m concerned,’ I replied.
‘For me too,’ she said cheerfully, then added, ‘Think how wonderful it would be if we were to find my dog now!’
‘We’ll find it, madame, believe me. I feel it,’ I said.
She stopped and looked at me. ‘You are kind,’ she said. ‘You make me feel I’ve found a friend. You said, “We’ll find it”. That’s very kind of you.’
I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t know what to reply.
‘Yes, you are kind,’ she repeated.
When we went into the Café Conti I was greeted by Damien, the manager, who shook hands with me.
‘It seems you are famous,’ said the woman.
‘Only in bars,’ I replied.
She laughed loudly.
I asked for red wine and she asked for a Kir Royale. I noticed Damien leaving the bar, and knew that he would be going to the storeroom behind it, near the toilet. I immediately made for the toilet and waited for a few moments for him to come out of the storeroom, then said, ‘Damien, please, if we have to drink a lot, can I settle the bill tomorrow? I only met this woman today.’
‘Certainly,’ said Damien. He added, ‘She’s only been living in Paris for two weeks. She was in California before.’
‘You know her?’
‘She comes in for a drink in the evening. She lives only a few steps away from here.’
The woman said that her name was Micheline, and asked me my name, about my life and what had happened to my country. I told her that I was working at the moment in a translation and printing company and that my ambition was to be a film director. About my country, I told her that on Quatorze Juillet 1958 a group of wicked officers had carried out a bloody military coup that had done away with the monarchy in Iraq and that since then the Iraqi people had been living under the rule of the loutish military.
‘Are you a royalist?’ she asked me.
Yes, I’m a royalist. I believe that the monarchy in my country was better for us.’
She nodded her head in an understanding way. ‘I lived more than fifteen years in California. I had a big restaurant there, specialising in French cuisine. OK, it was owned by myself and my husband. I separated from him a month ago.’ As she ordered another drink, she added, ‘I’m a professional chef. I thought of opening a restaurant here in Paris, but I decided to test the waters first, so I took a job as a chef in a well-known restaurant behind the Palais de Justice. My customers are among the best-known judges in Paris.’
After a moment’s silence, she asked, ‘Where do you live?’
‘A little while ago, I left the place I was living in near here, and I’m now living in a small studio near the press where I work. Near the Bourse de Paris.’
‘A nice area, but it’s a long way away from here,’ she said.
We went on drinking until the café closed its doors. She invited me to continue drinking in her house, ‘It’s only a few steps away, come with me.’
In the morning, Micheline appeared out of the bathroom while I was still in bed. She said good morning and bent down to kiss me, so I pulled her back into bed.
‘You know, I’m a royalist as well,’ she said. ‘I’m a chef, and chefs have to be royalists, don’t they?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, pulling the large towel from her body.
Micheline went to work and left me to sleep. When she came back, I was in the bathroom taking a shower, singing Charles Aznavour’s song ‘Dans tes bras’ with vigour. She started singing with me as she took off her clothes and got under the shower.
‘I know Charles Aznavour personally,’ said Micheline as we ate some wonderful French food she had brought from the restaurant. ‘I was the personal chef of the pop singer Lionel Richie.’
‘Wow, I like Lionel Richie a lot,’ I told her.
‘Me too,’ said Micheline. ‘I was his favourite chef for several years. Once, Charles Aznavour was one of Lionel Richie’s guests and I was in charge of the cooking. Lionel Richie said to me, ‘Micheline, please pay even more attention to the food than usual. Charles Aznavour is our guest. He’s a stickler, he puts his nose into everything in the kitchen, big or small. Please, I don’t want him to complain!’ And when Aznavour came, he did indeed meddle in every detail concerning the food. He’s very fussy and demanding.’
‘Is Lionel Richie a nice man?’ I asked Micheline.
‘Very,’ replied Micheline enthusiastically. Then she asked me whether I had contacted the translation company to tell them I wouldn’t be going in. I told her that they were used to my habits. ‘Don’t forget that yesterday was quatorze juillet,’ I reminded her.
‘Quatorze juillet, that reminds me, we should go out and look for my dog. Perhaps we’ll find him where I lost him.’
‘In Place Saint-Sulpice?’
‘Yes, near Catherine Deneuve’s house, the actress, do you know about her?’
‘Who doesn’t know about Catherine Deneuve?’
‘True. Yesterday you said something to me about the movies.’
‘I’d like to be a film director.’
‘Yes, I remember that.’
We went to the police station opposite Saint-Sulpice church and Micheline handed in details of her lost dog. Then we spent the afternoon wandering around the streets near the church. We drank a few glasses of white wine in a café in Rue Lobineau. Then she told me she had to go back home and afterward go to work. She suggested I go with her so that she could give me a spare house key.
‘I have a feeling I’ve begun to fall in love with you,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said.
Before she left for work, we went to bed. Then Micheline took a shower and went out. I got up and put a small table by the window overlooking Boulevard Saint-Germain. I brought the bottle of bourbon and began to drink. Since the apartment was immediately above the Old Navy Café, which I was forbidden to enter as a result of an argument with the café owner, I imagined myself sitting on the upstairs floor of the café to spite him.
So far as work was concerned, I still had no steady job. There was just a small company undertaking translation and publishing work, run by a Lebanese called Jean, who needed me occasionally for typesetting a few pages in Arabic. Luckily, a week before I met Micheline, Jean had told me he had signed a contract with a French company, well known in the arms manufacturing trade, to translate some catalogs of arms that the company had sold recently to a number of Gulf states. The Arab states were making it a condition that the catalogs should be in Arabic. Jean was happy that day, inviting me to have a few drinks with him as he gave me the news of the deal. He told me that he would need me ‘for two months at least’, then gave me a sum of money on account.
Before Micheline came back from work, the telephone rang. There was a young Frenchman on the line who asked for Micheline and said that on quatorze juillet he had been in a café with his girlfriend when a small dog had come up and sat beside them. When they left the café at dawn, they had taken the dog with them ‘because we realised it was lost’. Then he explained that he had seen an American telephone number on its collar. He had called the number and a man speaking English with a French accent answered and told him that the dog belonged to his former wife who was now living in Paris. Then the man had given him Micheline’s telephone number.
I thanked the young man, asked for his telephone number, and told him that as soon as Micheline came back from work she would call him.
‘Didn’t I tell you we would find him?’ I shouted at the top of my voice as I lifted her up, along with the bags she was carrying.
‘Be careful, be careful, there are bottles of white wine!’ said Micheline, then stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at me. ‘I can smell bourbon, please don’t play games with me.’
‘I’m not playing games, Micheline, we’ve found your dog.’
‘Where? Did the police get in touch?’
I shook my head and told her the story. She took the telephone number and started to dial it, while I occupied myself with emptying the bags and putting the food and wine in the fridge.
‘We have to celebrate this news,’ Micheline shrieked. ‘It’s a big celebration!’
She had satisfied herself that the news was correct, and started dancing, hugging me and pulling me towards the bed. Before taking off our clothes, she asked me to open a bottle of white wine and leave it beside the bed.
I never did like Micheline’s dog. It was ugly. She kissed it all the time. From the moment it was there with us, it started to annoy me. When Micheline was at home, it would bark the whole time in protest at my being there. When Micheline went to work and it was left with me, it never opened its mouth at all. It would disappear from my sight and hide away, in God only knows what corner of the apartment. It stayed there until suddenly it would run out, come up to me, look at me in an impudent way, and begin barking in my face. At that precise moment, the door would open and Micheline would come in.
Despite the petty arguments between us, the result of differences in temperament and mood, Micheline started to feel comfortable with me and buy me clothes, especially shirts with designer labels. She particularly liked the Agnes B brand. And because I had some experience in printing and publishing, she bought a computer and a colour printer.
She said that she was going to write a book about French cooking, that we would supervise the technical production of it together, and ‘you can use the computer to write your script. It’s better than a typewriter’.
We never missed a chance to go to bed. Before leaving home, when we returned, after a meal, after a shower. One day, on the way back from work, she said that she was inviting me to a fancy Mexican restaurant. In the restaurant, she put to me the idea that ‘we should live together permanently’.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
‘But we are together, Micheline,’ I replied.
‘True, but so far we haven’t talked about some important details.’
‘Let’s leave it until another time,’ I said offhandedly, clinking my glass against hers.
‘As you wish,’ she scowled.
This ‘As you wish’ didn’t come from her heart, though. As soon as we had left the restaurant and taken a few steps, she started to shout, ‘You all take advantage of my good nature in the same way. I take you out for a first-rate supper to talk about our relationship and all you can do is answer coldly, “Let’s leave it until another time”. What other time? Eh? Tell me. At the moment you just want to drink and fuck, isn’t that the truth, you bum?’
She opened her eyes as wide as she could and stared at me as she said ‘you bum’. I looked at her in astonishment.
‘Naturally,’ she said, ‘I asked about you. They told me that you lived on movie fantasies and slept on the streets. Despite that, I put up with you, even invite you to one of the best restaurants.’
She continued her tirade, which was attracting the attention of some passers-by, ‘You all take advantage of me in the same way. My husband cheated on me with my closest friend while all the time I was working for him.’
‘And you were also fucking a young Mexican boy while your husband was taking his siesta. You told me the story yourself!’
‘That’s none of your business,’ she said, then fell silent.
We walked on a few paces. She turned to me and said, ‘Give me the key to the apartment, please. Come tomorrow and get your things. I’m sorry, I’m not going back home now, I’m finishing my evening entertainment.’
I gave her the key as we stood there in the middle of the street. She went to finish off her evening in the bars of Rue Princesse. I headed for my favourite place, Au Chai de l’Abbaye, where I stayed drinking until two o’clock. A few minutes before the bar closed, Micheline came in and ordered a drink. Majid and Claude were astonished to see her standing beside me without talking to me.
I put my hand in my pocket and was about to pay my bill. I hesitated for a moment and thought of paying hers, but I was afraid of her reaction. I was conscious of the fact that I was wearing a shirt she had bought me. Who could guarantee that she wouldn’t demand it back in front of the customers? I was in a dilemma.
A Japanese customer, a regular, was standing at the bar. He was an eccentric fellow. He would go for days refusing to speak to any of the other customers, then on another day he would come and talk to everyone. He had a habit when he was talking to one customer, of withdrawing in the middle of a discussion and going to talk to another.
The Japanese man went up to Micheline and asked her if she’d like a drink. They started having a cheerful conversation and Micheline’s loud laughter could be heard throughout the bar. I took the opportunity to slip out. Not for a moment did I think that she would follow me and actually lure me in so that I would end up seeing in the dawn in a police station.
At first, I thought of getting away from the quarter, especially as the cafés that I drank in were all closed – Danton, Le Relais Odéon, Tennessee, Atlas, Bonaparte. I was reluctant to go to the Opera or Montparnasse quarters. I went to Café Conti. It was only a few moments before Micheline came in, with her arms around the Japanese man.
She came up to me and said calmly, ‘Take this key, please. Go and collect your things. My Japanese friend and I have decided to get married, and I don’t want any hassle.’
‘OK,’ I said and took the key, while she began to kiss her Japanese boyfriend.
‘Oh, my love, my Japanese love.’
Some customers were looking at us and smiling, some of them were regulars who knew that she was supposed to be my girlfriend. As the apartment was only two hundred metres away from the Conti, I went at once and began to gather my things together. The dog looked at me from its corner, trembling. I smiled at it. It carried on panting and staring at me. Before putting the bottle of Jack Daniels in the bag, I thought of having a drink. Micheline wouldn’t come back before five, or so I thought. But no sooner had I started to drink than the dog began to bark and Micheline came in with her Japanese friend. She patted the dog, then flew into a rage when she saw me sitting with the glass in my hand.
‘My apartment’s not a bar, do you understand?’ She tried to snatch the glass from my hand, so I pushed her hard towards the sofa. The dog began to bark, and I saw the Japanese man undo his flies and go into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
‘You hit me!’ she shouted.
‘You’re a bitch,’ I told her angrily, grabbing hold of her.
She took the telephone and dialed the police. She wouldn’t let me leave the apartment until the policemen had arrived and she had told them that I was a violent man and was refusing to leave.
‘You’re a lying bitch, Micheline, and you know it,’ I said as I left with the police. The Japanese man was still in the bathroom, and the dog seemed happy in her lap.
In the car, one policeman asked me, ‘Did you buy a new dog?’
I looked at him in astonishment. He said that he had seen us when we came to the station to report the loss of the dog. I told him how we had found the ‘ugly’ dog. The policeman laughed. Then he told me politely that they were obliged to detain me until eight in the morning. I asked him whether it was possible to stay until eleven as I wanted to sleep a little.
‘I don’t think so,’ said the policeman, adding, ‘Actually, my shift ends at nine so I won’t wake you before then.’
But the policeman and I had both forgotten that it was Sunday and the bells of Saint-Sulpice church wouldn’t let anyone sleep.
After that incident, Micheline began to look for me in the bars and to call my office. Two or three days later, she found me sitting in Place Furstenberg. She told me she had been drunk and stupid and that she was sorry, and she blamed herself for her tactless behaviour.
Then she repeated her account of her hard time with her former husband. ‘Oh, you don’t know how cruel he was to me in that foreign country!’
She lit a cigarette and went on: ‘I was a foreigner like you. America wasn’t my country and I was afraid my husband would throw me onto the street and I’d become exactly like you, a vagabond or a refugee.’ And she added, ‘What does it mean for someone to become homeless? Anyone of us could become homeless at any moment.’
She concluded, with a reference to the two famous cemeteries, ‘There is no stability in this life except in Montparnasse or Père Lachaise.’
I listened, nodding.
‘He would come at night and throw himself onto the bed and keep on snoring until morning. Of course, I knew he was sleeping with the Mexican maids in the afternoon.’
‘But, Micheline, you told me about your own adventures with the Mexicans as well!’
‘One adventure, with a good-looking guy,’ she said teasingly.
I remember, one evening we were lying on the bed and Micheline had told me this story: ‘We had a large villa about seven kilometres away from the restaurant. My husband preferred to take his siesta at the restaurant, while I would go home as soon as lunch was over. Until that is, the young man who worked as a dishwasher told me that my husband used to stay at the restaurant in order to spend his siesta sleeping with the waitresses. I broached the subject with him and we argued about it a lot but to no avail. I had to do the same, in the end, I’m not stupid. Especially as I knew that the dishwasher, who was a strapping young man, dreamed, like any Mexican, of sleeping with blonde women. I used to notice his glances in my direction as he worked in the kitchen.
‘One day, I went up to the young man, told him I had left the car trunk open and asked him to get inside it, then shut it behind him. After work I opened the trunk and found the young man stretched out, dripping with sweat. I closed it again and headed home, where we, too, began to take a siesta every afternoon. After a bit, my husband found out, fired the young man and began to keep watch on me until he turned my life into hell.’
I agreed to go back to Micheline to get away from the hell of the street. The period I had spent with her, as a resident of Boulevard Saint-Germain, was a happy one. It helped me escape from the vagabond life I had led for nearly ten years. I had persuaded myself that the best way of staying with her was to go out every morning as if I was an employee going off to work and to come back in the evening to spend time with her like any couple.
But this plan only worked for a few days. I began to pine for the streets and cafés again and drinking with friends. Whenever I went to meet friends, Micheline would end up spending the evening with us. She’d search every café until she found me. Sometimes she made trouble between me and my friends, and on many occasions, she said to me, ‘You go home, I’ll follow later.’ We had several arguments, and I had to leave the apartment more than once, but then we’d makeup and I’d go back.
One morning, an official holiday, the sun had been slipping through our window since the early hours of dawn. I woke up in a cheerful mood and began to caress Micheline, who was rousing slowly, responding to my caresses with a considerable appetite. Afterward, I suggested to her that we should go to spend the day at Versailles.
‘Aren’t we royalists, after all?’ I asked her.
‘Wonderful,’ she said. ‘To Versailles. That would be really nice.’
We made an assortment of sandwiches, and I took two bottles of Muscadet from the fridge. Then we took the train to Versailles. We wandered around among hundreds of tourists. I took lots of pictures of Micheline at the palace gate, in the fascinating palace grounds, then Micheline asked a Japanese tourist to take a picture of us together wearing sunglasses. And we found a cozy spot under a tree where we finished off the sandwiches and Muscadet and lay down.
When sunset approached, I said to Micheline, ‘I’ll hire a rowing boat so we can spend the sunset on the lake.’ Micheline smiled and seemed very happy.
‘You’ll see the strength of my arms,’ I added, making rowing motions.
No sooner had we got into the boat than Micheline, looking left and right, said, ‘But almost everyone has gone.’
‘The tourists like to look at the rooms inside the palace,’ I replied.
‘The place is so beautiful,’ said Micheline in a gentle voice. ‘Imagine, after all these years the Palace of Versailles is still like paradise. Admittedly, at the time of Louis XVI, it was far better.’
I nodded in agreement.
‘You’re right, I feel proud to be a royalist,’ she said, massaging my outstretched feet between hers. Micheline was talking as I guided the boat towards the far end of the lake, to a place where overgrown trees touched the water, until we were in a secluded, almost completely shaded spot.
I started to look left and right, then at Micheline, smiling. She got her camera out and took a picture of me.
‘Why don’t you speak?’ she asked.
I was smiling as I looked into her eyes for a moment, then at my own arms as they worked the oars in the water of Lake Versailles in that enticing sunset.
‘Won’t you say something?’
I looked left and right and pulled on the oars vigorously to steer the boat into an even more shaded area.
‘Say something,’ said Micheline loudly.
I didn’t reply but continued to stare at her.
‘What are you thinking about? Come on, what are you thinking about? Say something, please! Tell me what’s going round in your head!’
I looked into her eyes and said nothing.
She took out a cigarette and began smoking. ‘But say something! Come on, what are you thinking about, come on, tell me what you’re thinking about.’
‘I’m thinking about Hitchcock, I’m thinking about a movie of Hitchcock’s, Micheline.’
She looked at me and said in a pleading tone, ‘No, that’s not true. That’s not what you’re thinking. But you did tell me you wanted to be a film director, didn’t you?’ Micheline began to look left and right, while her face turned completely red. I felt that she was about to lose her power of speech completely. Finally, she said, ‘Don’t scare me, please, you’re too nice.’
‘You too,’ I said to her, smiling, then asked her to light me a cigarette.
‘Right away,’ she said, sighing. She lit the cigarette and added, ‘Now it’s my turn to row.’
She began to row quickly. ‘Don’t you think that we’d better go back?’ she said, out of breath.
I nodded agreement.
She rowed like mad – as if she were trying to escape drowning. I was smoking my cigarette and looking at her. A big smile came over her face whenever our eyes met. When we reached the jetty, Micheline became confused. ‘I have to go home quickly, yes, quickly, I’m very tired,’ she said.
We didn’t talk at all on the train. Micheline quickly opened the door to the apartment. She made for the telephone, which she carried into the room overlooking the street. She shut the door from the inside and spoke to me through the large glass window that separated the two rooms.
‘Please take your things and leave me to myself. Our relationship is over, over, over.’
‘Au revoir, Micheline.’
I took my things and went out, without hearing any reply.
That night I wandered from café to café and carried on drinking until dawn, without Micheline appearing. She didn’t appear the following day either, or the next one. I didn’t see her for more than a month, and then one day I heard she had left Paris and gone off with a Moroccan dishwasher, who had been working with her, to another city where she had decided to open a restaurant of her own.
Due to the imminent end of my summer break, and shortly before resuming my work at the Teacher Training College at the beginning of the third week of September, I reassured my wife, Zuleika al-Nadra, that we would not delay another day. She had already complained to me that there was a lot waiting for her to do at our apartment in Oran. I asked her to get ready the leave the following day. Then I headed out. A few meters away – thirty paces as counted years before with a child’s steps – on the other side of the street, I came to a stop. I had never stood like that before, with such sadness, in front of Chaim Ben Maimoun’s house. Like a being turned to stone, it looked haunted by emptiness for the three months since fate had effaced the last of its bygone residents.
I stepped forwards. By the silent door, the one I had seen Chaim coming out of twenty-eight years before with his satchel for us to go together to the Ecole Jules Ferry for the first time, I unhooked the cold piece of metal hanging from a small ring with “house key” written on a label. I inserted the key in the keyhole and turned it twice. Then I went inside and once again I experienced feelings the likes of which I had not felt even on the day when I went back to my grandmother’s house after her death. Such an oppressive calm brooded over the hallway, which was neither long or very wide with its red floor tiles and its walls painted a very light brown. Such a silence that rendered the doors to the three rooms and the kitchen mute as they stood facing each other, two on each side, all open except for the locked door that led to the backyard.
Everything, all the furniture, seemed in exactly the same place as Chaim had left it for the last time, how I had wanted it to remain for him since having told the cleaner Ouniya not to move anything when she came to clean the house every fortnight and water every week the plants in the backyard that needed watering.
It really seemed as though this was the first time. The hallway seemed longer and the wall-clock larger than when I had passed it as a child. Chaim’s bedroom, it’s window overlooking the street with its white curtain with a peacock pattern, looked bigger. Now, however, the room was a study with a wicker chair and an oak desk. The Parker fountain pen and bottle of black Waterman ink were still on the desk and between them a diary that I had seen when I went in two months ago and had been drawn towards as though responding to an ambiguous siren call saying that the diary had been left like that to attract my attention. Otherwise, Chaim would have tucked it away somewhere it couldn’t be seen or placed it on a bookshelf. Despite that, I had hesitated a few moments before opening it.
Here was his parents’ room, which became his bedroom after they died. It too had a closed window with a blind that overlooked the street. The wardrobe was still there, bedding and covers arranged on two tables on either side of it; the large bed and two bedside tables, a lamp on one and a seven-branched Menorah and a Bible bound in dark brown leather on the other.
The sitting room likewise had a large window with a sheer curtain with a pattern of oat florets overlooking the backyard. There were the two sofas and the two wooden armchairs and the low table on a rug. Here it was that three years before I had drunk with Zuleika the coffee that Chaim had offered us after he had escaped being beaten up on the morning of Independence Day. On the wall to the right hung three oil paintings. On the wall opposite were large framed portrait-style photographs: the first of Moshe, Chaim’s father, in a broadcloth turban; the second of his mother, Zahira Simah, whose kind, benign gaze, earrings and necklace, and tight headband made her look like my grandmother Rabia. The third photograph was of Chaim himself as he was in his first year at the Ecole Jules Ferry. I was filled with a nostalgic longing to sit down with him at the same table; for the smell of ink, the crackling of the logs in the stove, and the ringing of the bell; for the crush of our alleyway and the town square when it snowed and we threw snowballs at each other; for the river valley in the heat of summer when we once swam naked and discovered we were both circumcised.
“Since that age, I felt a secret attraction for your gentle features, calm manner, and dreamy eyes,” I whispered to his image. I imagined him smiling back and I added, “Do you remember our last piece of mischief?” That was when we got scared by Alphonso Batiste shouting at us; he had caught us up the pear tree on his little farm in the southern suburb by the western bank of the river. We jumped down and slipped away like two sly foxes between the wires of the fence. Our legs raced off with us in our shorts, cardigans, and rubber sandals. We didn’t pay attention to anything until the arches of the bridge loomed above us. Nearby we could hear the roaring of the engine of a car that I had seen when I glanced behind me. It was eating up the dusty road close to the Sigoura bar and causing clouds of dust as thick as Alphonso Batiste’s rage as he pressed on the accelerator as hard as he gripped the steering wheel. As I felt this, I imagined how he would deal with the Arab boy and the son of the Jewess.
“It’s because he knew who we were,” Chaim reminded me years later at the restaurant of the Orient Hotel, where we had lunch when the place appealed to us and talked about our old teacher at the Ecole Jules Ferry, Monsieur Jaime Sanchez, whose funeral we had attended a few days before at the Christian Cemetery in the eastern suburb of the city. We recalled his strictness and his fairness towards his pupils without discrimination. We only learned at his funeral that he had been a communist in the Republican ranks against Franco.
I have no doubt today that to Alphonso Batiste as he fumed behind us changing gear or swinging the steering wheel left to right we were far worse than two little devils who had disturbed his siesta. Alphonso Batiste – as during our lunch Chaim told me he had imagined – thought that once he had caught us, after having exhausted us and made us surrender, he would throw us into the boot of his car trussed back to back like the trophies of a hunt and take us back to the same pear tree. Then he would snap off some branches from other plum and apple trees, and raise and lower the amount in compensation he would demand from the families of the two little thieves, as he called them, or else he would make a formal complaint against them.
I still felt that shiver of fear whenever I remembered that Alphonso Batiste’s car would have caught up with us between the Sigoura Bar and the viaduct over the river. The fear had started to creep into my knees, and Chaim’s gasps behind me made more frightened that he was going to collapse. An idea flashed across my mind: jumping into the water. I signaled to him with my hand and he followed me as we suddenly swerved away to the right, using our arms like two birds for balance, down towards the river, slipping down the steep slope. We jumped into the water, and like two beavers, swam across to the other bank. When we got there, we turned around in terror and saw Alphonso Batiste, who had got out of his car and run after us. He stood there on the edge of the water, shouting incomprehensibly and gesturing threateningly. Laughing, we turned our backs on him and disappeared into the olive groves.
On the way back to our street, we crossed the railways’ lines and went down Jerriville Street, which, like the other streets, was almost devoid of movement on that burning-hot afternoon. Nothing moved apart from a car whose engine whined and whose wheels whooshed on the tarmac, a woman passing in a white cylindrical hat, and a man standing smoking on the opposite pavement in the shade of a plane tree.
“I was about to fall over,” said Chaim. “Then he would have trapped me like a rabbit.”
I laughed. “I could tell your tongue was hanging out like a puppy dog.”
“Yeah. But how did you come up with the idea?”
I replied that I didn’t know. I had only been planning to shorten the route.
“We were lucky that it’s summer and the river is low. Otherwise, we’d have drowned,” added Chaim as he tugged his sodden clothing off his stomach at one moment and off his thighs the next.
“That wouldn’t have happened because fear would have given us the strength to cross an ocean!” I said as I rubbed the water out of my hair.
Chaim raised his fist in victory and laughed in delight and I joined in.
Once we had gone past the clocktower close by the box-like sundial without the gaze of the suspicious policeman disturbing our steps, the Ecole Jules Ferry appeared to our left. We stopped and silently turned towards it. What voices of elation, disappointment, and deceit had filled it for six years!
Then, hand in hand, we turned towards our street, east of the town hall with its black slate roof. To our right was the Orient Hotel at the end of Izly Street. Close to our homes, we took shelter in an abandoned, roofless hut at the end of our street. We sat down on two rocks under the sun. As we waited for our clothes to dry, we went over our plot against our schoolmate Max Batiste, on account of which he had complained about us to his father Alphonso. He claimed that we had made fun of him one time in the playground because he had wet himself when the teacher had asked him to solve a long division on the blackboard, and that we had laughed at him on another occasion when he had been unable to learn the fable of the Crow and the Fox by heart. He told his father that the teacher, Monsieur Sanchez, mostly turned a blind eye and played deaf.
“I know, son, because Mr Sanchez sympathizes with the Jewish and Muslim natives,” Max’s father said at the time.
Those words were soon doing the rounds. When they reached Monsieur Sanchez, he devoted a civics class to integrity. On the blackboard he wrote something for us to copy into our exercise books: “A school teacher does not discriminate between his pupils and does not favour some over others on the basis of religion or race.”
What Max had concealed from his father was that we responded to his inducements in the form of the sweets and chocolates he kept in his pockets and helped him with his homework at the school gates before going in or when leaving.
Mr Alphonso Batiste visited the headmaster one day and asked him to clarify the matter. Monsieur Sanchez was summoned and questioned about the matter, which he firmly denied. Mr Alphonso Batiste was not convinced, however. He threatened to end his charitable contributions to the school unless the two guilty pupils – Arslan the Caid’s boy and Chaim the Jew boy – were made an example of. I only learned later that Mr Alphonso Batiste was a supporter of Marshal Pétain. The headmaster proposed bringing the three of us to his office straight away to discover what had happened. Alphonso Batiste conceded, promising to keep quiet this time, but threatening to make a complaint to the head of the town council if his son was upset again.
We, two little devils, looked at the marks of our schoolmate Max, which were poor in comparison with our own excellent marks, and we realized that nobody would dare punish us with expulsion, transfer, or detention, or even being denied lunch in the school dining room or the monthly film show in the school hall. Instead, we got a telling-off from the headmaster in front of our teacher.
Standing in front of Chaim’s photograph, I found it amazing that we should have come up with the idea of taking revenge against Max’s father in that way. I knew, just like Chaim, and we were both confident in our belief, that Alphonso Batiste would never make another complaint to the headmaster of the Ecole Jules Ferry, because we were never going back there, unlike his son Max, who had to redo the year, since we had won the competition to enter year six.
That year we would turn twelve, and in another year World War II would be over.
I turned away from Chaim’s portrait to leave, but I stopped again before the diary between the pen and the bottle of ink, unable to make up my mind for a few moments before setting off down the corridor towards the door out.
I visited St. Louis lately, and on my way West, after changing cars at Terre Haute, Indiana, a mild, benevolent-looking gentleman of about forty-five, or maybe fifty, came in at one of the way-stations and sat down beside me. We talked together pleasantly on various subjects for an hour, perhaps, and I found him exceedingly intelligent and entertaining. When he learned that I was from Washington, he immediately began to ask questions about various public men, and about Congressional affairs; and I saw very shortly that I was conversing with a man who was perfectly familiar with the ins and outs of political life at the Capital, even to the ways and manners, and customs of procedure of Senators and Representatives in the Chambers of the national Legislature. Presently two men halted near us for a single moment, and one said to the other:
“Harris, if you’ll do that for me, I’ll never forget you, my boy.”
My new comrade’s eye lighted pleasantly. The words had touched upon a happy memory, I thought. Then his face settled into thoughtfulness– almost into gloom. He turned to me and said,
“Let me tell you a story; let me give you a secret chapter of my life– a chapter that has never been referred to by me since its events transpired. Listen patiently, and promise that you will not interrupt me.”
I said I would not, and he related the following strange adventure, speaking sometimes with animation, sometimes with melancholy, but always with feeling and earnestness.
THE STRANGER’S NARRATIVE
“On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintanceships were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.
“At 11 P.m. it began to snow hard. Shortly after leaving the small village of Welden, we entered upon that tremendous prairie solitude that stretches its leagues on leagues of houseless dreariness far away toward the jubilee Settlements. The winds, unobstructed by trees or hills, or even vagrant rocks, whistled fiercely across the level desert, driving the falling snow before it like spray from the crested waves of a stormy sea. The snow was deepening fast; and we knew, by the diminished speed of the train, that the engine was plowing through it with steadily increasing difficulty. Indeed, it almost came to a dead halt sometimes, in the midst of great drifts that piled themselves like colossal graves across the track. Conversation began to flag. Cheerfulness gave place to grave concern. The possibility of being imprisoned in the snow, on the bleak prairie, fifty miles from any house, presented itself to every mind, and extended its depressing influence over every spirit.
“At two o’clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly–we were captives in a snow-drift! ‘All hands to the rescue!’ Every man sprang to obey. Out into the wild night, the pitchy darkness, the billowy snow, the driving storm, every soul leaped, with the consciousness that a moment lost now might bring destruction to us all. Shovels, hands, boards–anything, everything that could displace snow, was brought into instant requisition. It was a weird picture, that small company of frantic men fighting the banking snows, half in the blackest shadow and half in the angry light of the locomotive’s reflector.
“One short hour sufficed to prove the utter uselessness of our efforts. The storm barricaded the track with a dozen drifts while we dug one away. And worse than this, it was discovered that the last grand charge the engine had made upon the enemy had broken the fore-and-aft shaft of the driving-wheel! With a free track before us we should still have been helpless. We entered the car wearied with labor, and very sorrowful. We gathered about the stoves, and gravely canvassed our situation. We had no provisions whatever–in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.
“Within the hour conversation subsided to a low murmur here and there about the car, caught fitfully between the rising and falling of the blast; the lamps grew dim; and the majority of the castaways settled themselves among the flickering shadows to think–to forget the present, if they could–to sleep, if they might.
“The eternal night-it surely seemed eternal to us-wore its lagging hours away at last, and the cold gray dawn broke in the east. As the light grew stronger the passengers began to stir and give signs of life, one after another, and each in turn pushed his slouched hat up from his forehead, stretched his stiffened limbs, and glanced out of the windows upon the cheerless prospect. It was cheer less, indeed!-not a living thing visible anywhere, not a human habitation; nothing but a vast white desert; uplifted sheets of snow drifting hither and thither before the wind–a world of eddying flakes shutting out the firmament above.
“All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night–and hunger.
“Another dawning–another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting–wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.
“The fourth day came and went–and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment! A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import–the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart–a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.
“The sixth day passed–the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost–she must yield. RICHARD H. GASTON of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared–every emotion, every semblance of excitement–was smothered–only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.
“‘Gentlemen: It cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!’
“MR. JOHN J. WILLIAMS of Illinois rose and said: ‘Gentlemen–I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee.’
“MR. Wm. R. ADAMS of Indiana said: ‘I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York.’
“MR. CHARLES J. LANGDON: ‘I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis.’
“MR. SLOTE: ‘Gentlemen–I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey.’
“MR. GASTON: ‘If there be no objection, the gentleman’s desire will be acceded to.’
“MR. VAN NOSTRAND objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.
“MR. A. L. BASCOM of Ohio: ‘I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot.’
“MR. SAWYER: ‘Gentlemen–I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly.’
“MR. BELL of Iowa: ‘Gentlemen–I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made–every gentleman present is, I believe–and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution–‘
“MR. GASTON: ‘It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey–‘
“MR. VAN NOSTRAND: ‘Gentlemen–I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy–‘
“MR. MORGAN Of Alabama (interrupting): ‘I move the previous question.’
“The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin a committee on nominations, and Mr. R. M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.
“A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucusing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.
“MR. ROGERS of Missouri: ‘Mr. President The report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us–none of us can be blind to the fact that the committee has been derelict in its duty, either through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him–‘
“THE CHAIR: ‘The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman’s motion?’
“MR. HALLIDAY of Virginia: ‘I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire–substance, weight, bulk–these are the supreme requisites now–not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion.’
“MR. MORGAN (excitedly): ‘Mr. Chairman–I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone–not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon’s hospitable shores? Never!’ [Applause.]
“The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.
“MR. RADWAY moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.
“On the first ballot–there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.
“The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then, when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready drove all thought of it to the winds.
“We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then; thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The winds howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fiber, give me Harris. Messick had his good points–I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir–not a bit. Lean?–why, bless me!–and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it–you could never imagine anything like it.”
“Do you mean to tell me that–“
“Do not interrupt me, please. After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper. He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterward. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently a perfect gentleman he was a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud, there is no question about it–old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, ‘Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.’ It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was splendid! Well, well–after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster–a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn’t any good for company and no account for breakfast. We were glad we got him elected before relief came.”
“And so the blessed relief did come at last?”
“Yes, it came one bright, sunny morning, just after election. John Murphy was the choice, and there never was a better, I am willing to testify; but John Murphy came home with us, in the train that came to succor us, and lived to marry the widow Harris–“
“Relict of our first choice. He married her, and is happy and respected and prosperous yet. Ah, it was like a novel, sir–it was like a romance. This is my stopping-place, sir; I must bid you goodby. Any time that you can make it convenient to tarry a day or two with me, I shall be glad to have you. I like you, sir; I have conceived an affection for you. I could like you as well as I liked Harris himself, sir. Good day, sir, and a pleasant journey.”
He was gone. I never felt so stunned, so distressed, so bewildered in my life. But in my soul I was glad he was gone. With all his gentleness of manner and his soft voice, I shuddered whenever he turned his hungry eye upon me; and when I heard that I had achieved his perilous affection, and that I stood almost with the late Harris in his esteem, my heart fairly stood still!
I was bewildered beyond description. I did not doubt his word; I could not question a single item in a statement so stamped with the earnestness of truth as his; but its dreadful details overpowered me, and threw my thoughts into hopeless confusion. I saw the conductor looking at me. I said, “Who is that man?”
“He was a member of Congress once, and a good one. But he got caught in a snow-drift in the cars, and like to have been starved to death. He got so frost-bitten and frozen up generally, and used up for want of something to eat, that he was sick and out of his head two or three months afterward. He is all right now, only he is a monomaniac, and when he gets on that old subject he never stops till he has eat up that whole car-load of people he talks about. He would have finished the crowd by this time, only he had to get out here. He has got their names as pat as A B C. When he gets them all eat up but himself, he always says: ‘Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived; and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.'”
I felt inexpressibly relieved to know that I had only been listening to the harmless vagaries of a madman instead of the genuine experiences of a bloodthirsty cannibal.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel awoke to the alarm of his Nokia mobile phone at exactly 6:05. He tried, like every morning, to cover his face with a pillow, but he felt an awful weakness. He could not move. The ringing of the alarm hammered and hammered louder and louder in his head. Eventually, he decided to reach over to the bedside table and silence the alarm; then he would give his heartbeat a few minutes to settle down before getting up. But he felt debilitated again. He had no sensation in his hand, in both hands, in his head, his legs, his whole body.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel had a shocking realization: he had turned into something else. He was no longer the person who had fallen asleep late the previous night, physically exhausted after a long evening at work. As he mentally gauged his rigidity, he became certain that he had metamorphosized into something metallic. Something stiff and hard lay in his place on the bed.
Citizen Jabir Sabeel spent some considerable time trying to get used to the hard, stiff body that had replaced his body of flesh. He then became aware of the voices of children racing through the streets on their way to school and the shouts of the sellers of vegetables, household items, and milk calling out their cheap goods. He had a strange feeling that the sunlight had started to seep into the room through a crack in the ceiling. In a panic, he remembered that he was very late for work at the government office and that a deduction from his wages and a rebuke from his stern boss awaited him. He made an effort to stand up quickly, but his heavy metal body failed him and pulled him back to the bed. In a panic, he thought, “I’m made of iron. I’ve turned into iron.”
Citizen Jabir Sabeel managed, after furious efforts, to fall out of the bed. In fact, he flung his whole new iron body onto the concrete floor. With the loud clang he made, he discovered that he had the equivalent of two long thin legs. He somehow willed himself to prop himself upon them, and he tottered over to the full-length mirror set in the middle of his wardrobe. He discovered something else: he had what appeared to be a single, seeing eye. Its sight was powerful and it led him with great accuracy towards the wardrobe.
He stopped for a few moments before lifting up his thin iron legs and positioning himself in front of the mirror. As he looked at the reflection of his new iron self, Citizen Jabir Sabeel could not stop himself crying out in a strange voice of shock and fright that made him spin around like crazy. Bullets sprayed from a tube sticking out of his front and lodged in the walls and furniture as they flew all over the place.
Jabir Sabeel was devastated to see that his new body had turned into a machine that looked like a cross between a DShK machinegun and a four-barrelled howitzer. Its sights were telescopic, like a deadly eye; its muzzle blazed like Hell; its two sturdy supports seemed to have been made to bear death. His sense of devastation worsened when he sensed the deadly bullets continue to fly out of his blazing body in every direction. His body jumped around erratically and led him into the street, leaving a trail of death and destruction all around.
“It is not enough to be the possessor of genius—the time and the man must conjoin. An Alexander the Great, born into an age of profound peace, might scarce have troubled the world—a Newton, grown up in a thieves’ den, might have devised little but a new and ingenious picklock. . . .”
Diversions of Historical Thought by
John Cleveland Cotton.
(The following extracts have been made from the letters of General Sir Charles William Geoffrey Estcourt, C.B., to his sister Harriet, Countess of Stokely, by permission of the Stokely family. Omissions are indicated by triple dots, thus . . .)
St. Philippe-des-Bains, September 3d, 1788.
MY DEAR SISTER: . . . I could wish that my excellent Paris physician had selected some other spot for my convalescence. But he swears by the waters of St. Philip and I swear by him, so I must resign myself to a couple of yawning months ere my constitution mends. Nevertheless, you will get long letters from me, though I fear they may be dull ones. I cannot bring you the gossip of Baden or Aix—except for its baths, St. Philip is but one of a dozen small white towns on this agreeable coast. It has its good inn and its bad inn, its dusty, little square with its dusty, fleabitten beg gar, its posting-station and its promenade of scrubby lindens and palms. From the heights one may see Corsica on a clear day, and the Mediterranean is of an unexampled blue. To tell the truth, it is all agreeable enough, and an old Indian campaigner, like myself, should not complain. I am well treated at the Cheval Blanc—am I not an English milord?—and my excellent Gaston looks after me devotedly. But there is a blue-bottle drowsiness about small watering places out of season, and our gallant enemies, the French, know how to bore themselves more exquisitely in their provinces than any nation on earth. Would you think that the daily arrival of the diligence from Toulon would be an excitement? Yet it is to me, I assure you, and to all St. Philip. I walk, I take the waters, I read Ossian, I play piquet with Gaston, and yet I seem to myself but half-alive. . . .
. . . You will smile and say to me, “Dear brother, you have always plumed yourself on being a student of human nature. Is there no society, no character for you to study, even in St. Philippe-des-Bains?” My dear sister, I bend myself earnestly to that end, yet so far with little result. I have talked to my doctor—a good man but unpolished; I have talked to the curé—a good man but dull. I have even attempted the society of the baths, beginning with Monsieur le Marquis de la Percedragon, who has ninety-six quarterings, soiled wristbands, and a gloomy interest in my liver, and ending with Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins, a worthy and red-faced lady whose conversation positively cannonades with dukes and duchesses. But, frankly, I prefer my chair in the garden and my Ossian to any of them, even at the risk of being considered a bear. A witty scoundrel would be the veriest godsend to me, but do such exist in St. Philip? I trow not. As it is, in my weakened condition, I am positively agog when Gaston comes in every morning with his budget of village scandal. A pretty pass to come to, you will say, for a man who has served with Eyre Coote and but for the mutabilities of fortune, not to speak of a most damnable cabal . . . (A long passage dealing with General Estcourt’s East Indian services and his personal and unfavorable opinion of Warren Hastings is here omitted from the manuscript.) . . . But, at fifty, a man is either a fool or a philosopher. Nevertheless, unless Gaston provides me with a character to try my wits on, shortly, I shall begin to believe that they too have deteriorated with Indian suns. . . .
September 21st, 1788.
My Dear Sister: . . . Believe me, there is little soundness in the views of your friend, Lord Martindale. The French monarchy is not to be compared with our own, but King Louis is an excellent and well-beloved prince, and the proposed summoning of the States-General cannot but have the most salutary effect. . . . (Three pages upon French politics and the possibility of cultivating sugar-cane in Southern France are here omitted.) . . . As for news of myself, I continue my yawning course, and feel a decided improvement from the waters. . . . So I shall continue them though the process is slow. . . .
You ask me, I fear a trifle mockingly, how my studies in human nature proceed?
Not so ill, my dear sister—I have, at least, scraped acquaintance with one odd fish, and that, in St. Philip, is a triumph. For some time, from my chair in the promenade, I have observed a pursy little fellow, of my age or thereabouts, stalking up and down between the lindens. His company seems avoided by such notables of the place as Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins and at first I put him down as a retired actor, for there is something a little theatrical in his dress and walk. He wears a wide-brimmed hat of straw, loose nankeen trousers and a quasi-military coat, and takes his waters with as much ceremony as Monsieur le Marquis, though not quite with the same ton. I should put him down as a Meridional, for he has the quick, dark eye, the sallow skin, the corpulence and the rodomontish airs that mark your true son of the Midi, once he has passed his lean and hungry youth.
And yet, there is some sort of unsuccessful oddity about him, which sets him off from your successful bourgeois. I cannot put my finger on it yet, but it interests me.
At any rate, I was sitting in my accustomed chair, reading Ossian, this morning, as he made his solitary rounds of the promenade. Doubtless I was more than usually absorbed in my author, for I must have pronounced some lines aloud as he passed. He gave me a quick glance at the time, but nothing more. But on his next round, as he was about to pass me, he hesitated for a moment, stopped, and then, removing his straw hat, saluted me very civilly.
“Monsieur will pardon me,” he said, with a dumpy hauteur, “but surely monsieur is English? And surely the lines that monsieur just repeated are from the great poet, Ossian?”
I admitted both charges, with a smile, and he bowed again.
“Monsieur will excuse the interruption,” he said, “but I myself have long admired the poetry of Ossian”—and with that he continued my quotation to the end of the passage, in very fair English, too, though with a strong accent. I complimented him, of course, effusively—after all, it is not every day that one runs across a fellow-admirer of Ossian on the promenade of a small French watering place—and after that, he sat down in the chair beside me and we fell into talk. He seems, astonishingly for a Frenchman, to have an excellent acquaintance with our English poets—perhaps he has been a tutor in some English family. I did not press him with questions on this first encounter, though I noted that he spoke French with a slight accent also, which seems odd.
There is something a little rascally about him, to tell you the truth, though his conversation with me was both forceful and elevated. An ill man, too, and a disappointed one, or I miss my mark, yet his eyes, when he talks, are strangely animating. I fancy I would not care to meet him in a guet-apens, and yet, he may be the most harmless of broken pedagogues. We took a glass of waters together, to the great disgust of Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins, who ostentatiously drew her skirts aside. She let me know, afterward, in so many words, that my acquaintance was a noted bandit, though, when pressed, she could give no better reason than that he lives a little removed from the town, that “nobody knows where he comes from” and that his wife is “no better than she should be,” whatever that portentous phrase entails. Well, one would hardly call him a gentleman, even by Mrs. Macgregor’s somewhat easy standards, but he has given me better conversation than I have had in a month—and if he is a bandit, we might discuss thuggee together. But I hope for nothing so stimulating, though I must question Gaston about him. . . .
. . . But Gaston could tell me little, except that my acquaintance comes from Sardinia or some such island originally, has served in the French army and is popularly supposed to possess the evil eye. About Madame he hinted that he could tell me a great deal, but I did not labor the point. After all, if my friend has been c-ck-ld-d—do not blush, my dear sister!—that, too, is the portion of a philosopher, and I find his wide range of conversation much more palatable than Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins’ rewarmed London gossip. Nor has he tried to borrow money from me yet, something which, I am frank to say, I expected and was prepared to refuse. . . .
. . . Triumph! My character is found—and a character of the first water, I assure you! I have dined with him in his house, and a very bad dinner it was. Madame is not a good housekeeper, whatever else she may be. And what she has been, one can see at a glance—she has all the little faded coquetries of the garrison coquette. Good-tempered, of course, as such women often are, and must have been pretty in her best days, though with shocking bad teeth. I suspect her of a touch of the tarbrush, though there I may be wrong. No doubt she caught my friend young—I have seen the same thing happen in India often enough—the experienced woman and the youngster fresh from England. Well, ’tis an old story—an old one with him, too—and no doubt Madame has her charms, though she is obviously one reason why he has not risen.
After dinner, Madame departed, not very willingly, and he took me into his study for a chat. He had even procured a bottle of port, saying he knew the Englishman’s taste for it, and while it was hardly the right Cockburn, I felt touched by the attention. The man is desperately lonely—one reads that in his big eyes. He is also desperately proud, with the quick, touchy sensitiveness of the failure, and I quite exerted myself to draw him out.
And indeed, the effort repaid me. His own story is simple enough. He is neither bandit nor pedagogue, but, like myself, a broken soldier—a major of the French Royal Artillery, retired on half pay for some years. I think it creditable of him to have reached so respectable a rank, for he is of foreign birth—Sardinian, I think I told you—and the French service is by no means as partial to foreigners as they were in the days of the first Irish Brigade. Moreover, one simply does not rise in that service, unless one is a gentleman of quarterings, and that he could hardly claim. But the passion of his life has been India, and that is what interests me. And, ‘pon my honor, he was rather astonishing about it.
As soon as, by a lucky chance, I hit upon the subject, his eyes lit up and his sickness dropped away. Pretty soon he began to take maps from a cabinet in the wall and ply me with questions about my own small experiences. And very soon indeed, I am abashed to state, I found myself stumbling in my answers. It was all book knowledge on his part, of course, but where the devil he could have got some of it, I do not know. Indeed, he would even correct me, now and then, as cool as you please. “Eight twelve pounders, I think, on the north wall of the old fortifications of Madras——” and the deuce of it is, he would be right. Finally, I could contain myself no longer.
“But, major, this is incredible,” I said. “I have served twenty years with John Company and thought that I had some knowledge. But one would say you had fought over every inch of Bengal!”
He gave me a quick look, almost of anger, and began to roll up his maps.
“So I have, in my mind,” he said, shortly, “but, as my superiors have often informed me, my hobby is a tedious one.”
“It is not tedious to me,” I said boldly. “Indeed, I have often marveled at your government’s neglect of their opportunities in India. True, the issue is settled now——”
“It is by no means settled,” he said, interrupting me rudely. I stared at him.
“It was settled, I believe, by Baron Clive, at a spot named Plassey,” I said frigidly. “And afterward, by my own old general, Eyre Coote, at another spot named Wandewash.”
“Oh, yes—yes—yes,” he said impatiently, “I grant you Clive—Clive was a genius and met the fate of geniuses. He steals an empire for you, and your virtuous English Parliament holds up its hands in horror because he steals a few lakhs of rupees for himself as well. So he blows out his brains in disgrace—you inexplicable English!—and you lose your genius. A great pity. I would not have treated Clive so. But then, if I had been Milord Clive, I would not have blown out my brains.”
“And what would you have done, had you been Clive?” I said, for the man’s calm, staring conceit amused me.
His eyes were dangerous for a moment and I saw why the worthy Mrs. Macgregor Jenkins had called him a bandit.
“Oh,” he said coolly, “I would have sent a file of grenadiers to your English Parliament and told it to hold its tongue. As Cromwell did. Now there was a man. But your Clive—faugh!—he had the ball at his feet and he refused to kick it. I withdraw the word genius. He was a nincompoop. At the least, he might have made himself a rajah.”
This was a little too much, as you may imagine. “General Clive had his faults,” I said icily, “but he was a true Briton and a patriot.”
“He was a fool,” said my puffy little major, flatly, his lower lip stuck out. “As big a fool as Dupleix, and that is saying much. Oh, some military skill, some talent for organization, yes. But a genius would have brushed him into the sea! It was possible to hold Arcot, it was possible to win Plassey—look!” and, with that, he ripped another map from his cabinet and began to expound to me eagerly exactly what he would have done [Pg 124]in command of the French forces in India, in 1757, when he must have been but a lad in his twenties. He thumped the paper, he strewed corks along the table for his troops—corks taken from a supply in a tin box, so it must be an old game with him. And, as I listened, my irritation faded, for the man’s monomania was obvious. Nor was it, to tell the truth, an ill-designed plan of campaign, for corks on a map. Of course these things are different, in the field.
I could say, with honesty, that his plan had features of novelty, and he gulped the words down hungrily—he has a great appetite for flattery.
“Yes, yes,” he said. “That is how it should be done—the thickest skull can see it. And, ill as I am, with a fleet and ten thousand picked men——” He dreamed, obviously, the sweat of his exertions on his waxy face—it was absurd and yet touching to see him dream.
“You would find a certain amount of opposition,” I said, in an amused voice.
“Oh, yes, yes,” he said quickly, “I do not underrate the English. Excellent horse, solid foot. But no true knowledge of cannon, and I am a gunner——”
I hated to bring him down to earth and yet I felt that I must.
“Of course, major,” I said, “you have had great experience in the field.”
He looked at me for a moment, his arrogance quite unshaken.
“I have had very little,” he said, quietly, “but one knows how the thing should be done or one does not know. And that is enough.”
He stared at me for an instant with his big eyes. A little mad, of course. And yet I found myself saying, “But surely, major—what happened?”
“Why,” he said, still quietly, “what happens to folk who have naught but their brains to sell? I staked my all on India when I was young—I thought that my star shone over it. I ate dirty puddings—corpo di Baccho!—to get there—I was no De Rohan or Soubise to win the king’s favor! And I reached there indeed, in my youth, just in time to be included in the surrender of Pondicherry.” He laughed, rather terribly, and sipped at his glass.
“You English were very courteous captors,” he said. “But I was not released till the Seven Years War had ended—that was in ’63. Who asks for the special exchange of an unknown artillery lieutenant? And then ten years odd of garrison duty at Mauritius. It was there that I met Madame—she is a Creole. A pleasant spot, Mauritius. We used to fire the cannon at the sea birds when we had enough ammunition for target practice,” and he chuckled drearily. “By then I was thirty-seven. They had to make me a captain—they even brought me back to France. To garrison duty. I have been on garrison duty, at Toulon, at Brest, at——” He ticked off the names on his fingers but I did not like his voice.
“But surely,” I said, “the American war, though a small affair—there were opportunities——”
“And who did they send?” he said quickly. “Lafayette—Rochambeau—De Grasse—the sprigs of the nobility. Oh, at Lafayette’s age, I would have volunteered like Lafayette. But one should be successful in youth—after that, the spring is broken. And when one is over forty, one has responsibilities. I have a large family, you see, though not of my own begetting,” and he chuckled as if at a secret joke. “Oh, I wrote the Continental Congress,” he said reflectively, “but they preferred a dolt like Von Steuben. A good dolt, an honest dolt, but there you have it. I also wrote your British War Office,” he said in an even voice. “I must show you that plan of campaign—sometime—they could have crushed General Washington with it in three weeks.”
I stared at him, a little appalled.
“For an officer who has taken his king’s shilling to send to an enemy nation a plan for crushing his own country’s ally,” I said, stiffly—”well, in England, we would call that treason.”
“And what is treason?” he said lightly. “If we call it unsuccessful ambition we shall be nearer the truth.” He looked at me, keenly. “You are shocked, General Estcourt,” he said. “I am sorry for that. But have you never known the curse”—and his voice vibrated—”the curse of not being employed when you should be employed? The curse of being a hammer with no nail to drive? The curse—the curse of sitting in a dusty garrison town with dreams that would split the brain of a Caesar, and no room on earth for those dreams?”
“Yes,” I said, unwillingly, for there was something in him that demanded the truth, “I have known that.”
“Then you know hells undreamed of by the Christian,” he said, with a sigh, “and if I committed treason—well, I have been punished for it. I might have been a brigadier, otherwise—I had Choiseul’s ear for a few weeks, after great labor. As it is, I am here on half pay, and there will not be another war in my time. More over, M. de Ségur has proclaimed that all officers now must show sixteen quarterings. Well, I wish them joy of those officers, in the next conflict. Meanwhile, I have my corks, my maps and my family ailment.” He smiled and tapped his side. “It killed my father at thirty-nine—it has not treated me quite so ill, but it will come for me soon enough.”
And indeed, when I looked at him, I could well believe it, for the light had gone from his eyes and his cheeks were flabby. We chatted a little on indifferent subjects after that, then I left him, wondering whether to pursue the acquaintance. He is indubitably a character, but some of his speeches leave a taste in my mouth. Yet he can be greatly attractive—even now, with his mountainous failure like a cloak upon him. And yet why should I call it mountainous? His conceit is mountainous enough, but what else could he have expected of his career? Yet I wish I could forget his eyes. . . . To tell the truth, he puzzles me and I mean to get to the bottom of him. . . .
February 12th, 1789.
. . . I have another sidelight on the character of my friend, the major. As I told you, I was half of a mind to break off the acquaintance entirely, but he came up to me so civilly, the following day, that I could find no excuse. And since then, he has made me no embarrassingly treasonable confidences, though whenever we discuss the art of war, his arrogance is unbelievable. He even informed me, the other day, that while Frederick of Prussia was a fair general, his tactics might have been improved upon. I merely laughed and turned the question. Now and then I play a war game with him, with his corks and maps, and when I let him win, he is as pleased as a child. . . . His illness increases visibly, despite the waters, and he shows an eagerness for my company which I cannot but find touching. . . . After all, he is a man of intelligence, and the company he has had to keep must have galled him at times. . . .
Now and then I amuse myself by speculating what might have happened to him, had he chosen some other profession than that of arms. He has, as I have told you, certain gifts of the actor, yet his stature and figure must have debarred him from tragic parts, while he certainly does not possess the humors of the comedian. Perhaps his best choice would have been the Romish church, for there, the veriest fisherman may hope, at least, to succeed to the keys of St. Peter. . . . And yet, Heaven knows, he would have made a very bad priest! . . .
But, to my tale. I had missed him from our accustomed walks for some days and went to his house—St. Helen’s it is called; we live in a pother of saints’ names hereabouts—one evening to inquire. I did not hear the quarreling voices till the tousle-haired servant had admitted me and then it was too late to retreat. Then my friend bounced down the corridor, his sallow face bored and angry.
“Ah, General Estcourt!” he said, with a complete change of expression as soon as he saw me. “What fortune! I was hoping you would pay us a call—I wish to introduce you to my family!”
He had told me previously of his pair of stepchildren by Madame’s first marriage, and I must confess I felt curious to see them. But it was not of them he spoke, as I soon gathered.
“Yes,” he said. “My brothers and sisters, or most of them, are here for a family council. You come in the nick of time!” He pinched my arm and his face glowed with the malicious naïveté of a child. “They do not believe that I really know an English general—it will be a great blow to them!” he whispered as we passed down the corridor. “Ah, if you had only worn your uniform and your Garters! But one cannot have everything in life!”
Well, my dear sister, what a group, when we entered the salon! It is a small room, tawdrily furnished in the worst French taste, with a jumble of Madame’s femininities and souvenirs from the Island of Mauritius, and they were all sitting about in the French after-dinner fashion, drinking tisane and quarreling. And, indeed, had the room been as long as the nave of St. Peter’s, it would yet have seemed too small for such a crew! An old mother, straight as a ramrod and as forbidding, with the burning eyes and the bitter dignity one sees on the faces of certain Italian peasants—you could see that they were all a little afraid of her except my friend, and he, I must say, treated her with a filial courtesy that was greatly to his credit. Two sisters, one fattish, swarthy and spiteful, the other with the wreck of great beauty and the evident marks of a certain profession on her shabby-fine toilette and her pinkened cheeks. An innkeeper brother-in-law called Buras or Durat, with a jowlish, heavily handsome face and the manners of a cavalry sergeant—he is married to the spiteful sister. And two brothers, one sheep-like, one fox-like, yet both bearing a certain resemblance to my friend.
The sheep-like brother is at least respectable, I gathered—a provincial lawyer in a small way of business whose great pride is that he has actually appeared before the Court of Appeals at Marseilles. The other, the fox-like one, makes his living more dubiously—he seems the sort of fellow who orates windily in taprooms about the Rights of Man, and other nonsense of M. Rousseau’s. I would certainly not trust him with my watch, though he is trying to get himself elected to the States-General. And, as regards family concord, it was obvious at first glance that not one of them trusted the others. And yet, that is not all of the tribe. There are, if you will believe me, two other brothers living, and this family council was called to deal with the affairs of the next-to-youngest, who seems, even in this mélange, to be a black sheep.
I can assure you, my head swam, and when my friend introduced me, proudly, as a Knight of the Garters, I did not even bother to contradict him. For they admitted me to their intimate circle at once—there was no doubt about that. Only the old lady remained aloof, saying little and sipping her camomile tea as if it were the blood of her enemies. But, one by one, the others related to me, with an unasked-for frankness, the most intimate and scandalous details of their brothers’ and sisters’ lives. They seemed united only on two points, jealousy of my friend, the major, because he is his mother’s favorite, and dislike of Madame Josephine because she gives herself airs. Except for the haggard beauty—I must say, that, while her remarks anent her sister-in-law were not such as I would care to repeat, she seemed genuinely fond of her brother, the major, and expounded his virtues to me through an overpowering cloud of scent.
It was like being in a nest of Italian smugglers, or a den of quarrelsome foxes, for they all talked, or rather barked at once, even the brother-in-law, and only Madame Mère could bring silence among them. And yet, my friend enjoyed it. It was obvious he showed them off before me as he might have displayed the tricks of a set of performing animals. And yet with a certain fondness, too—that is the inexplicable part of it. I do not know which sentiment was upmost in my mind—respect for this family feeling or pity for his being burdened with such a clan.
For though not the eldest, he is the strongest among them, and they know it. They rebel, but he rules their family conclaves like a petty despot. I could have laughed at the farce of it, and yet, it was nearer tears. For here, at least, my friend was a personage.
I got away as soon as I could, despite some pressing looks from the haggard beauty. My friend accompanied me to the door.
“Well, well,” he said, chuckling and rubbing his hands, “I am infinitely obliged to you, general. They will not forget this in a hurry. Before you entered, Joseph”—Joseph is the sheep-like one—”was boasting about his acquaintance with a sous-intendant, but an English general, bah! Joseph will have green eyes for a fortnight!” And he rubbed his hands again in a perfect paroxysm of delight.
It was too childlike to make me angry. “I am glad, of course, to have been of any service,” I said.
“Oh, you have been a great service,” he said. “They will not plague my poor Josie for at least half an hour. Ah, this is a bad business of Louis’—a bad business!”—Louis is the black sheep—”but we will patch it up somehow. Hortense is worth three of him—he must go back to Hortense!”
“You have a numerous family, major,” I said, for want of something better to say.
“Oh, yes,” he said, cheerfully. “Pretty numerous—I am sorry you could not meet the others. Though Louis is a fool—I pampered him in his youth. Well! He was a baby—and Jerome a mule. Still, we haven’t done so badly for ourselves; not badly. Joseph makes a go of his law practice—there are fools enough in the world to be impressed by Joseph—and if Lucien gets to the States-General, you may trust Lucien to feather his nest! And there are the grandchildren, and a little money—not much,” he said, quickly. “They mustn’t expect that from me. But it’s a step up from where we started—if papa had lived, he wouldn’t have been so ill-pleased. Poor Elisa’s gone, but the rest of us have stuck together, and, while we may seem a little rough, to strangers, our hearts are in the right place. When I was a boy,” and he chuckled again, “I had other ambitions for them. I thought, with luck on my side, I could make them all kings and queens. Funny, isn’t it, to think of a numskull like Joseph as a king! Well, that was the boy of it. But, even so, they’d all be eating chestnuts back on the island without me, and that’s something.”
He said it rather defiantly, and I did not know which to marvel at most—his preposterous pride in the group or his cool contempt of them. So I said nothing but shook his hand instead. I could not help doing the latter. For surely, if anyone started in life with a millstone about his neck . . . and yet they are none of them ordinary people. . . .
March 13th, 1789.
. . . My friend’s complaint has taken a turn for the worse and it is I who pay him visits now. It is the act of a Christian to do so and, to tell the truth, I have become oddly attached to him, though I can give no just reason for the attachment. He makes a bad patient, by the way, and is often abominably rude to both myself and Madame, who nurses him devotedly though unskillfully. I told him yesterday that I could have no more of it and he looked at me with his strangely luminous eyes. “So,” he said, “even the English desert the dying.” . . . Well, I stayed; after that, what else might a gentleman do? . . . Yet I cannot feel that he bears me any real affection—he exerts himself to charm, on occasion, but one feels he is playing a game . . . yes, even upon his deathbed, he plays a game . . . a complex character. . . .
April 28th, 1789.
. . . My friend the major’s malady approaches its term—the last few days find him fearfully enfeebled. He knows that the end draws nigh; indeed he speaks of it often, with remarkable calmness. I had thought it might turn his mind toward religion, but while he has accepted the ministrations of his Church, I fear it is without the sincere repentance of a Christian. When the priest had left him, yesterday, he summoned me, remarking, “Well, all that is over with,” rather more in the tone of a man who has just reserved a place in a coach than one who will shortly stand before his Maker.
“It does no harm,” he said, reflectively. “And, after all, it might be true. Why not?” and he chuckled in a way that repelled me. Then he asked me to read to him—not the Bible, as I had expected, but some verses of the poet Gray. He listened attentively, and when I came to the passage, “Hands, that the rod of empire might have swayed,” and its successor, “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,” he asked me to repeat them. When I had done so, he said, “Yes, yes. That is true, very true. I did not think so in boyhood—I thought genius must force its own way. But your poet is right about it.”
I found this painful, for I had hoped that his illness had brought him to a juster, if less arrogant, estimate of his own abilities.
“Come, major,” I said, soothingly, “we cannot all be great men, you know. And you have no need to repine. After all, as you say, you have risen in the world——”
“Risen?” he said, and his eyes flashed. “Risen? Oh, God, that I should die alone with my one companion an Englishman with a soul of suet! Fool, if I had had Alexander’s chance, I would have bettered Alexander! And it will come, too, that is the worst of it. Already Europe is shaking with a new birth. If I had been born under the Sun-King, I would be a Marshal of France; if I had been born twenty years ago, I would mold a new Europe with my fists in the next half-dozen years. Why did they put my soul in my body at this infernal time? Do you not understand, imbecile? Is there no one who understands?”
I called Madame at this, as he was obviously delirious, and, after some trouble, we got him quieted.
May 8th, 1789.
. . . My poor friend is gone, and peacefully enough at the last. His death, oddly enough, coincided with the date of the opening of the States-General at Versailles. The last moments of life are always painful for the observer, but his end was as relatively serene as might be hoped for, considering his character. I was watching at one side of the bed and a thunderstorm was raging at the time. No doubt, to his expiring consciousness, the cracks of the thunder sounded like artillery, for, while we were waiting the death-struggle, he suddenly raised himself in the bed and listened intently. His eyes glowed, a beatific expression passed over his features. “The army! Head of the army!” he whispered ecstatically, and, when we caught him, he was lifeless . . . I must say that, while it may not be very Christian, I am glad that death brought him what life could not, and that, in the very article of it, he saw himself at the head of victorious troops. Ah, Fame—delusive spectre . . . (A page of disquisition by General Estcourt on the vanities of human ambition is here omitted.) . . . The face, after death, was composed, with a certain majesty, even . . . one could see that he might have been handsome as a youth. . . .
. . . I shall return to Paris by easy stages and reach Stokely sometime in June. My health is quite restored and all that has kept me here this long has been the difficulty I have met with in attempting to settle my poor friend, the major’s affairs. For one thing, he appears to have been originally a native of Corsica, not of Sardinia as I had thought, and while that explains much in his character, it has also given occupation to the lawyers. I have met his rapacious family, individually and in conclave, and, if there are further gray hairs on my head, you may put it down to them. . . . However, I have finally assured the major’s relict of her legitimate rights in his estate, and that is something—my one ray of comfort in the matter being the behavior of her son by the former marriage, who seems an excellent and virtuous young man. . . .
. . . You will think me a very soft fellow, no doubt, for wasting so much time upon a chance acquaintance who was neither, in our English sense, a gentleman nor a man whose Christian virtues counterbalanced his lack of true breeding. Yet there was a tragedy about him beyond his station, and that verse of Gray’s rings in my head. I wish I could forget the expression on his face when he spoke of it. Suppose a genius born in circumstances that made the development of that genius impossible—well, all this is the merest moonshine. . . .
. . . To revert to more practical matters, I discover that the major has left me his military memoirs, papers and commentaries, including his maps. Heaven knows what I shall do with them! I cannot, in courtesy, burn them sur-le-champ, and yet they fill two huge packing [Pg 137]cases and the cost of transporting them to Stokely will be considerable. Perhaps I will take them to Paris and quietly dispose of them there to some waste-paper merchant. . . . In return for this unsought legacy, Madame has consulted me in regard to a stone and epitaph for her late husband, and, knowing that otherwise the family would squabble over the affair for weeks, I have drawn up a design which I hope meets with their approval. It appears that he particularly desired that the epitaph should be writ in English, saying that France had had enough of him, living—a freak of dying vanity for which one must pardon him. However, I have produced the following, which I hope will answer.
Major of the Royal Artillery
Born August 15th, 1737
at Ajaccio, Corsica.
Died May 5th, 1789
at St. Philippe-des-Bains
“Rest, perturbed spirit . . .”
. . . I had thought, for some hours, of excerpting the lines of Gray’s—the ones that still ring in my head. But, on reflection, though they suit well enough, they yet seem too cruel to the dust.