Jean Ray: The Outer Edge of Darkness
A complete incomplete story.
“Aux lisières des ténèbres” – “The Outer Edge of Darkness” (literally, “On the Outskirts of Darkness”) – appeared in a 1995 “Ray/Flanders” number of Les Dossiers de Phenix, a Belgian journal edited by Claude Lefrancq and devoted to authors of fantastic literature.
The Phenix editorial note on “The Outer Edge” is frustratingly abrupt and minimal:
” Later Jean Ray returned to various episodes in order to construct “Le Grand Nocturne”, whose mystery is clarified by reading these pages. He also borrowed from it the awakening of Jean-Jacques Grandsire after his flight from Malpertuis, and, finally, “La scolopendre” (“The Centipede”). A question remains: […] If ‘The Outer Edge of Darkness’ was a finished text, why did the author not bring it forward as such?”
This seems to be the story’s first and only publication; it may have appeared elsewhere, but not that I can trace. It has, however, attracted some critical attention, notably an essay in the journal Otrante, which I haven’t been able to consult.
“The Outer Edge of Darkness” is a substantial and ambitious effort, a novella rather than a short story, and a ‘conte cruel’ which pushes well beyond the usual limits of the genre. It must have been written in the late 1930s or the start of the 1940s, and so at a turning point in Jean Ray’s chequered literary career. From 1930 to 1940 he had dedicated most of his time to churning out Harry Dickson adventures at breakneck speed – some 105 separate episodes averaging 80 pages each. In the 1940s he moved on from Dickson and embarked on a particularly fruitful period which saw the writing of Malpertuis and other key works. While a number of the 1930s Dickson adventures are vintage Jean Ray and carry his characteristic signature in terms of theme and atmosphere, they retain the pulp trappings of ‘dime novel’ fiction; the 1940s work is more deliberately literary and more ambitious. In this context, it’s tempting to see “The Outer Edge of Darkness” as a conscious reaction against the carpentered plot denouements and conventional morality required by the mass-market fascicules. But Ray also may have felt that the result was too obscure and too extreme for a popular audience (which was the only one he had). This, however, is speculation; all that we can say on current evidence is that he abandoned the work when it was already at an advanced stage, and made no attempt to have it published. As noted above, he subsequently quarried shorter pieces from it, including an episode from Malpertuis.
One would like to know more about the state of the manuscript. We learn, via two endnotes, that a line of text has been crossed out, and that twenty pages are missing. Are these Claude Lefrancq’s editorial notes or Ray’s own playful, pseudo-editorial flourishes? The question seems to be answered in a prologue by a nameless editor. In a familiar trope, he describes a mysterious, discovered manuscript with textual gaps: “The pages were held together by a thin brass wire. However, toward the end […] several seemed to be lost.” Let’s assume, then, that the endnotes, including the notice of the missing pages, belong to the story’s fictional editor.
And yet an element of ambiguity persists, for there really are missing pages. The editor specifies the existence of not one but two distinct manuscripts, written in different hands, the second intercalated within the first. The primary narrative is the 1st person narrative of the central protagonist, Jacques. The editor tells us that the supplementary narrative, identified as “Herckenslach’s memoir”, follows directly after Jacques’ narrative. But in fact it doesn’t; the promised text is absent and we only have Jacques’ narrative. Jean Ray, it seems, never got round to writing the memoir.
The resulting situation is wonderfully ironic; “The Outer Edge of Darkness”, purporting to be a recovered manuscript with missing pages, is itself an actual recovered manuscript with missing pages. It’s almost as though Ray had wanted to create a ‘mise en abyme’ – an ongoing play of self-reflecting mirrors – that would come to light posthumously.
However “The Outer Edge of Darkness” is not a playful text; on the contrary, it bids fair to be Ray’s darkest work of fiction, a violently hallucinatory exercise in occult obsession and murder, with passages of sadism and quasi-incestuous sex hardly found anywhere else in his work. His usual touches of whimsy are absent, replaced by bizarre images and surreal visions which, at a guess, are influenced by Lautréamont’s Maldoror (a sewing machine crops up as a metaphor, a possible allusion to Lautréamont’s famous simile of the sewing machine and the operating table). At the same time though, Ray’s stylistic fingerprints are unmistakably in evidence.
“The Outer Edge of Darkness” remains one of Ray’s most extravagant creations, a true nightmare in prose. As in a nightmare, there is a refusal of resolved meaning; the Shakespeare quotation, “a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, serves as a sardonic epigraph. Formally, a succession of micro-paragraphs supplements various shifts in narrative perspective, creating an overall sense of fracture and disorientation. An intermediate part of the narrative set in Holland proceeds more straightforwardly, but this too gradually deviates into disturbing strangeness. In the final section, the narrative becomes properly delirious, reflecting both Jacques’ psychosis and his ultimate damnation.
The absence of Herckenslach’s memoir is regrettable, however Jacques’ narrative is properly concluded and able to stand on its own, even though it remains occluded and mysterious. Would the unwritten pages have helped clarify the story’s enigmas? A clue is provided by a reference to “the fourth dimension”, Ray’s pet formula for exploring displacements of space and time. A larger narrative is also clear enough – Jacques is driven to sadistic murders by an occult fatality. But many crucial details and events, including the nature of the fatality, remain unfathomable. The absent Herckenslach memoir might conceivably have provided further clues, but probably not; the editor tells us that it “throws no light”, and we must believe him. There is, overall, an “atmosphere of uncertainty, compounded of anguish and incoherence”. This, I’d suggest, is the intended effect; the story’s perplexing strangeness should be seen as subversive rather than deficient, as a strength rather a failing. “The Outer Edge of Darkness” is a fascinating text, as weird as anything in the canon and a genuine oeuvre maudit.
The Outer Edge of Darkness
One finds so many manuscripts. In a hat, and on a desert island. In floating bottles, in taxis, in hotel rooms. This one was about to fly off over the sea like a flight of tern when a fisherman’s little boy caught it.
The pages were held together by a thin brass wire. However, toward the end of the tale – a tale? – several seem to be lost.
A violent land-breeze was blowing that day, and the youngster saw the arrival of these leaves of paper high in the sky among a whirlwind of leaves and twigs from a nearby thicket.
There’s nothing to distinguish the manuscript of this peculiar story. Its paper is good quality, substantial, but not expensive. The writing is neat, in a fine hand, but lacking in character. Only the final pages are feverishly written.
It seems that the mysterious author wanted to achieve – to attain? – an extreme limit of revelation.
We should add that the rapidly twisted brass wire doesn’t allow us to suppose that we have a completed work before us, rather pages abandoned to the winds of powers and things…
But what’s disconcerting about this manuscript is that we found there another, intercalated one.
These are the brief memoirs of an old man called Herckenslach; they consist of several pages covered with a handwriting so small and cramped that a magnifying glass was needed to decipher them.
Inserted into the middle of the last chapter, they throw no light. For the rest, what light could hang over these obscure pages?
It might be supposed that, in the final moments, the author hastily gathered together everything that seemed precious to him.
The story of Herckenslach, which we transcribe directly after this one, merely thickens the atmosphere of uncertainty, compounded of anguish and incoherence, that weighs down on the little provincial town.
We should add…
The evening of October 8.
“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
– Signifying nothing”
When leaving school at four o’clock today, October the 8th, the improbable, the strange, everything that fills your mouth with nauseous fear, sprang toward my face like a cat.
Four o’clock is a neutral hour. It smells of buttered bread and good fresh coffee, it harms no one. The housemaids leave the pavements gleaming with sunlit water and the old women, having emptied their bag of malice, leave their net-curtained observation posts for rear kitchens full of the teapot’s hazy mist.
I turned my back on the school with all the weariness of my fifteen years, an odious problem involving couriers scraping away at my brain.
“What use is algebra to me?” I said to my companion. “I’m alone in the world; I have a good annual income. Every day I go drinking, and pay for my drink at Treeman wharf.
“The saddler’s pigeons are swarming on the little square,” was his response. “I’m going to throw stones at them. I’d like to kill the blue one.”
I saw that my companion was limping, and it was then that I recognized that I was walking with David Boske.
“Hello,” I said, “It’s you Boske. I thought I was talking to Jérôme Mayer.”
“Haven’t you seen that he’s sheltering in the sewer?” Boske said.
I laughed to please this disgusting boy who was relegated to the backmost benches because he stank like a goat, and because his sebaceous glands burst on the surface of his skin like a toad’s pustules.
The streets were empty, but swollen with yellow sunlight and the heat of the late season; the pigeons had fled, and strutted on a distant gable.
“Look,” said Boske, “the baker’s only got one loaf of bread left.”
True, the tired, chalky wicker baskets were empty, the glazed jars and boxes contained nothing but dull curds.
Not a single thing was there save that grey, clay-like loaf, on the marble display shelf, like a solitary island in an ocean.
“Boske,” I said, “there’s something about all this that I don’t like.”
“You’ll never succeed in solving the problem of the couriers,” he replied contemptuously.
I lowered my head. It seemed to me that the worst thing that could happen to me was to fail to solve that problem.
“If we were to open that loaf,” said Boske, “we’d see it was full of living things. The baker and his family are very afraid of that loaf. Right now they’re sheltering in the oven, with knives.”
“Our cook is going there to fetch sausage bread to bake. It’s excellent, David. I’ll bring it to you tomorrow.”
“No point,” my companion said, “the whole bakery will burn down tonight, and everyone inside will be roasted, like the things in the bread.”
I couldn’t find anything to say in reply. Nevertheless I insisted that it was a pity about the sausage bread.
“You wouldn’t have eaten it in any event,” said my friend.
And that was true too.
I can’t explain how, at that moment, I was hurt by every detail, every piece of thought, everything I saw.
“David,” I said, “I can’t see very well. You’re speaking to me with an iron comb. It’s lucky that the wind doesn’t carry the smell of the stables, it would make me howl, and if a fly were to land on my head, it would have six metal legs and sink right into my skull.”
I didn’t quite understand his droning reply.
“You’re on a different plane, your senses are in revolt.”
“David,” I continued, “how is it that I can see old Herckenslach stretched out at the bottom of his bookshop ladder? His forehead is split open. What’s happened to him? And why am I seeing that?”
Boske looked at me contemptuously.
“No, nothing at all has happened to him. You’re seeing that in time.”
“I don’t understand,” I murmured feebly.
“How could you understand when the problem of the couriers seems as big as the world to you,” he said peevishly.
“We must have left school a long time ago. Gertrude the cook, and Berthe the housemaid, will be worried.”
“Not at all, little boy. Look, have the shadows moved at all?”
It was true, the little square hadn’t shifted its shadows, not that of the tall and ridiculous pump, nor that of the baker’s cart that beseeched the sky with the thin appeal of its shafts.
“Ah!” I said, “Here’s someone at last.”
The square I’ve been speaking about was called Golden Sand Square; it formed a triangle, and each one of its angles terminated in a street, as though in a drainpipe. At the end of a long street called Blue Cedar Street there was a slowly moving human silhouette.
“It’s old Bullus,” said Boske. “She’s rotten to the core.”
“What!” I cried, “Madame Bullus, the old lady of White’s Grand Stores on the station concourse! There isn’t a woman who’s more respected.”
“I get it,” he replied, his condescension becoming more and more contemptuous. “You still can’t see properly, no matter what you look at, but give it time, little boy, give it time.”
Feeling sad, I lowered my head. I’d never before felt so downcast, such an ignoramus.
“You’re sneering at me Boske,” I murmured, “and yet I want to do all I possibly can to learn…”
“Good,” he said. “That’s a helpful resolution. Look now.”
The fat old lady had approached, armoured with jewelry and jade. A package dangled from her bare hand bedizened with flashing stones.
“Boske,” I cried, “what kind of bad fairy is she? Why does she give such filthy kisses to the young shop assistants in the little salon where there’s a leather chaise longue – and what’s in the package? Dear God in heaven, silver pyjamas with red-gold spangles!”
Madame Bullus passed us by, seemingly without seeing us. Suddenly she turned round, put her package down on the ground and started to shriek the most hair-raising shrieks in the world.
“It’s nothing, since it’s in time,” David said as I recoiled fearfully. “She’s being murdered, that’s all.”
“That’s all,” said the lugubrious echo of my voice.
The square’s shadows had now moved, a touch of sunlight took shelter against the facades on our left, like a negligent, luminous brushstroke disdainfully left by mad artists.
Dragging our heels, we’d covered part of the length of Blue Cedar Street. From time to time I turned back toward Golden Sand Square and found that it resembled butcher’s tripe sagging on a hook. I shared this with Boske, who acknowledged that it wasn’t at all bad.
“We’ll have a glass of lemon squash in that bar,” he suddenly said.
I saw an odd little house, new and white, with a thatch for headgear, full of tortured, iridescent ceramic windows.
“It’s very pretty,” I said, “and just think that I’ve never seen it before. Baron Pisaeker’s big house joins onto that of Monsieur Minus, and now here’s this nice building between the two… and, wait a minute, it looks like the Baron’s house has become shorter by a few windows.”
But David Boske interrupted my astonished prattle with a furious shrug.
He pushed a door as precious as an enormous piece of copperware, where I read in clear letters on a ground of frosted green, The Alpha Bar. We slipped into a little corner of a bizarrely luminous metallic paradise, like the centre of a rare crystal.
The walls were all tinted glass, without definite designs but with an animated light running behind them; very low divans, draped in textures that were spangled with flame-coloured lacquer.
A little idol with a particularly malevolent look was reflected in the vast water of a mirror; his monstrous navel was hollowed into a perfume-pan of veined stone. A perfumed ash was still glowing red.
“Hey, Boske, this gentleman looks like you,” I said.
“It’s a champagne advert,” he said.
No one came.
Through the ground glass windows I saw the daylight in the street turn darker; the zodiacal light behind the stained glass murals skittered madly, with the abrupt movements of a hunted insect.
A noise of fresh water could be heard, running on the upper floors.
Then, without our having seen her arrival, a woman was there against the suddenly unmoving light of the tinted glass, and my heart tolled a knell of disappointment, for the woman was tawdry, and because of her this corner of a bizarre paradise was suddenly nothing but a commonplace décor, vulgarly made out of the ordinary spectrum of the prism that can be seen by any hairdresser’s or butcher’s boy if he takes the trouble to look about him.
“Hullo,” said Boske, “ you’re already dissatisfied. But look at Roméone’s breasts.”
I was only fifteen years old. No girl cousin had shared my solitary pastimes. In all my life, I’d only approached silly Berthe; on three or four occasions I’d known her meagre figure.
“Sometimes it makes me so ill,” Roméone breathed.
“What a bust,” David jeered.
An enormous blouse of Chinese crêpe was distended by the woman’s breasts.
“Little boy,” she said to me, “give me your hands to hold them up. Mine have been tired of them for years now.”
The weight was horrible, alive, throbbing like a trapped animal, and slowly bearing down on my wrists.
“Oh! Such a relief,” she said, “leave your hands there, child.”
Her humdrum features lit up with delighted relief, and she looked almost pretty to me.
Boske ripped the blouse apart with a sharp blow; it burst like an overheated bottle. A frightful breast rolled naked on my hand, rough, pimpled, seamed with heavy veins.
Roméone bowed her head as though struck by an insult.
“It’s a malignant tumour,” she breathed.
Her mouth twisted, badly; I saw that she had teeth like squashed maggots.
And suddenly she raised her eyes to mine. Enormous red eyes with raised pupils, overtopped by eyebrows that were angled sharply toward her forehead. Red-coloured sparks seemed to flicker around their balls, which bulged with liquid hate.
“Whoo!” I cried. “Whoo!”
The light behind the tinted glass started to dance about, despairingly.
“Listen,” said Boske, pushing me roughly into the street, “one day we’ll study the composition of spiders’ eyes with microscopes that are more sensitive than the ones that exist now.”
“I want to go home,” I said. “Please Boske, tell me what’s happening to me.”
By way of reply he merely burst into a vibrant yodel.
“Thank God!” I cried suddenly. “There goes Jérôme Mayer!”
My friend was indeed sitting placidly on the highest step of the house of Gjisperd, the grain merchant.
I held out my hand to him.
“You’re so stupid; you’ll get bitten,” David growled. Can’t you see that this isn’t Jérôme Mayer but a sewer rat?”
Then I saw with unspeakable anguish that Jérôme was gobbling handfuls of yellow grain in the most laughable way – and – horror of horrors – a kind of pink, greasy and plump tail whipped from his legs to his wicked serpent face. An immense sob rose to my lips.
“I warned you, didn’t I” Boske growled. “He’d hardly left the school before he took shelter in the sewer. Won’t you ever learn to see?”
“So now you’re boring me,” he added. “Go back home to your Gertrude, the monster maker.
Confronting Boske I felt like a coward, a hopeless coward, but I couldn’t bear to hear him insulting Gertrude, my Gertrude who had kept a loving watch over each of my steps ever since I had been abandoned in my cradle.
“Dirty stinking goat,” I yelled. “Squashed toad, tomorrow I’ll get you beaten up by the whole school!”
I leapt at him, hand held high. I got a hard rap on the nose that promptly bathed my lips in warm dew.
At the end of the darkened street a skinny and ridiculous silhouette jumped for a moment, like a puppet made of broken matchsticks.
I thought I was still on the length of Blue Cedar Street, but I was happily surprised to see the high door of our house in front of me.
Door directly open; the worried figures of Gertrude and Berthe.
“God be praised,” Gertrude cried. “Here you are Monsieur Jacques. But our little master, he’s bleeding! His face is all bloody!”
The arms that Gertrude threw around me were long and thin, but strong as tropical creepers.
“And he’s burning with fever, the child. His cheek is like a hot saucepan.”
Through a fog of distress, I saw Berthe fling a shawl over her shoulders.
“Get Doctor Santhorix,” Gertrude screeched. “Quick, quick.”
She lifted me like a baby and, with maternal hands, undressed me in my room.
“You’ve got a fever, little one, a fever.”
“I didn’t understand the problem of the couriers Gertrude, it’s the problem of the couriers, and Boske was mean, he made fun of me.”
“I thought so,” she grumbled angrily. “They baffle the children’s brains with their voodoo questions.”
“Gertrude,” I said, “do you see that picture?”
It seemed to me that the room was swaying oddly.
“Yes, my own wee boy, it’s St. Pulcheria, one of God’s saintly chosen ones of course.”
“Tell me why she’s taken off her blouse and showing such a monstrous bust?” I said in a hard voice, “Gertrude, I want to know… show me your breasts!”
Gertrude gave a start. She held up her arms.
“Dear God, the child must be really ill. Let’s hope the doctor comes quickly.”
St. Pulcheria slowly turned her head.
“Gertrude,” I said in a very low voice, “Do all women have such horrendous breasts, a malignant tumour…”
“Mercy on us,” she breathed. “He’s going mad, the fever is killing him. Dear God, don’t steal this child from me!”
The room was lifted on a silent tide. St. Pulcheria turned her head further and further toward me.
“Gertrude, take the picture down, she’s going to look at me with spider eyes.”
Her eyelids really were slowly opening, I saw a reflection of embers glowing under her eyelids, but just when this look of liquid fire was going to consume my poor eyes, Gertrude’s hands brusquely unhooked the picture and turned it to the wall.
A man’s voice echoed dully on the stairs.
“Thank heavens!” Gertrude cried, “here’s Doctor Santhorix.” And she ran to meet him.
Alone in the room, I fell prey to the most dreadful silence.
Suddenly my body felt the vibration of strange little sharp blows. I saw the picture of St. Pulcheria quivering and pushed out here and there by febrile prods.
I wanted to cry out, it was very difficult; it seemed that my voice re-echoed elsewhere in my room!
And there and then a noise of silver streamed right through the house; I heard the frightened voices of the two women and the doctor. A volley of stones showered against the house-front, windows were shattered, bric-a-brac broken, mirrors cracked. The stones bounced and rolled down the stairs like loud-sounding water.
Finally I uttered a vast, resounding cry. The window and bed curtains were lifted as though blown by a gust of air, they swelled and rolled and, suddenly, a big red flame devoured them with a furious roar.
The Unprecedented Awakening
The seaside awakening.
I was awakened by a distant sound, like a gigantic breath.
I didn’t recognize the completely white room with walls of snow and little luminous windows like mother-of-pearl.
Footsteps sounded in the neighbouring room. I half closed my eyes and saw someone I didn’t know come in, ruddy and glowing with rural good health. She didn’t stay for long, lifted up a saucer, poured out the dregs of a sticky cup and went out. For a moment, her enormous bottom, a glutinous obstruction, blocked the door.
I thought of a cargo-ship poop and would have liked to compensate for so much fat and heaviness by inscribing a charmingly pretty name.
Outside, near the window, a curious aerial dispute broke out, sharp and fretful. I lifted my head a little and saw the sky – a blue sky with little suds of clouds, like a doll’s washing – tormented by irritable shapes.
“Seagulls!” I cried and added immediately, “the sea!”
It lined the horizon with a blue steel band, feathered with plumes of smoke.
“Gertrude,” I cried, “Gertrude, come and see!”
The rooms all round mine which a moment ago had been full of confused voices immediately fell silent. I heard doors opening and shutting, then a voice, a familiar one this time, exclaimed, “Is it possible. Please God in heaven!”
A storm of skirts invaded the room, vigorous arms encircled me, warm kisses wet my cheeks.
“Monsieur Jacques! My darling little Jacques!”
Gertrude was there, sobbing, vibrating like a happy harp.
“I was sure that the good Lord would give him back to me, my very own Jacques!”
But I remained mute, trembling, stupefied.
Gertrude had a mane of mighty black hair that she energetically disciplined on her Olympian head with a veneer of hard wax, and it was now this silver helmet that I saw on my breast.
“Gertrude, what’s happened to us?”
No doubt that she understood, for her lips grimaced unhappily.
“Nothing, my own wee boy. Listen, we’re in luck, Doctor Santhorix is in the neighbourhood. He’ll come and see us shortly… and… ah well, nothing has happened.”
“That’s fine,” I said, “I’ll wait for the doctor. But tell me, where are we?”
She calmed down and became volubly talkative. We were in Holland, in the north, near the sea. A cottage lost in the dunes. In the evening, every half minute, a lighthouse illuminated the ships heading toward far-flung lands of adventure.
The fat woman was called Keetje; like all Dutch women she weighed two hundred pounds, but her housekeeping was like a love affair.
There was a little maritime town a league from here, a toy-town built with multicoloured pebbles. Peopled strolled about, ate mussel soup and little eel sandwiches – pure miracles, these!
A fisherman arrived, bringing six fine soles to the kitchen. What a feast there would be. Keetje was in town with the fish-seller’s barrow looking for Dutch liqueurs – Wijnand and Tockink – there was nothing smoother and headier on God’s earth.
We had to celebrate.
“Celebrate what, Gertrude?” I asked, feeling somewhat exhausted.
Once more her lips grimaced unhappily, as though she’d said too much.
“Your recovery, little one, because you’re better now.”
“Have I been ill then Gertrude?”
She stood up happily. The doctor would be better able than her to tell me what there was to tell.
The doctor gazed at his cigar, which smoked uselessly in the big glazed sandstone ashtray.
he tiny cups were stained brown by strong Dutch coffee. Diminutive gems of curacao and cherry brandy shone in the little glasses.
Now I knew.
I was nineteen years old.
For four years I had been passed on from clinic to sanatorium, a creature without will, without memory, without soul. I had climbed the snow-covered slopes of Davos, trampled with my bare feet the icy dew of the meadows of the Kneipp institutes in south Germany, raised faithless eyes toward the blazing Cross of Lourdes, breathed the creosote air of the fir-groves of the Belgian Campine, roasting in the dog-days, and all without seeing them.
I cradled my head in my hands.
“Don’t think about it,” said the doctor.
“I remember,” I said, “I remember clearly, I was coming back from school. My head was spinning with that stupid problem of the couriers…”
“That’s what it was,” the doctor interposed hastily, “ and you contracted a nasty meningitis that threatened both your life and your sanity.”
He thought to conclude on that generalization.
I continued. “Boske was there, that horrible boy, Boske, who told me things… Then all the windows were suddenly broken by a shower of stones.”
“It was meningitis,” the doctor said, smiling calmly, “with the usual hallucinations. I’ll lend you books on the subject if you’re still interested.”
We spent a quiet afternoon. We went in pursuit of the sea that had retreated with the ebb tide toward the far horizon. Gertrude collected crabs that hid in salty puddles.
“I don’t want those creatures,” I said. “They’re spiders’ sisters.”
Gertrude flung them away as fast as she could.
“They’ve got nothing common,” the doctor objected with a wan smile.
“Spiders…” I muttered.
“Don’t think about it Jacques, my darling,” Gertrude pleaded.
“No,” the doctor said. “Your head needs to rest.”
We returned in the coppery twilight. Kobus, Keetje’s brother, met us with a bucket filled with crackling shrimps.
“They were caught in your honour, monsieur Jacques,” he said, “There’s nothing to beat fresh shrimps.”
He invited me to come fishing with him one day in his boat, The Beautiful Matilda.
“That’s some job,” I said.
“It certainly is,” he said. “Look at my hands.” And he showed me two large, furrowed hands, bitten by salt and tanned by the hard caress of cables and lines.
“With your delicate hands, that wouldn’t be such a good thing,” he said laughing loudly, “because you’ve got the hands of a young lady, monsieur Jacques, what a pity that they’re a little scarred by that burn mark.”
Gertrude, who had been listening distractedly to our conversation, suddenly intervened, shoving the fisherman, who opened his eyes wide and rolled them.
I felt that she wanted to divert my attention with something completely different.
“Look Jacques, a boat, a steamer.”
But the sea was empty, I smiled at her feeble ruse, that of a doting woman, and looked down at my hands. They were speckled with long white and pink scars.
“It’s suddenly come back to me that the bed curtains caught fire,” I said calmly.
Doctor Santhorix let out a dull cry.
“More hallucinations, you’d do well to drop these silly ideas.”
He told me tale of boiling water spilled on my hands, a tale that I didn’t listen to and didn’t believe. So, science had no explanation for the mysteries that had attacked me on that bizarre afternoon?
Did it still gravitate around me, that mystery, a frightening satellite of darkness? Didn’t the mere sight of the anxious figures of my two guardian angels listening to the arrival of night demand belief in it? The shutters, thick antique oak shutters, were closed, the doctor’s expression was sombre and resolute. Gertrude, whom I’d never known to be dogmatic, prayed with mystical fervor and lifted hands that were sometimes more threatening than imploring toward holy images shining in the light of slender candles.
“Doctor,” I asked one evening, “where was I for those five years?”
He looked at me, disconcerted.
“What a strange question Jacques. You were with us. With Gertrude all the time, often with me, because I came to see you wherever you were, and I was there at Gertrude’s least call for help.”
I gripped his faithful hand feelingly.
“You misunderstand my question. My spirit, maybe my soul, where were they?”
He replied with another question.
“My dear Jacques, where are they when we’re sleeping, above all when we’re dreaming?”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said solemnly.
But the doctor was vehement. “No, no, I’m not right, I make no claims, or rather what I claim, and I claim that firmly, is that there’s nothing odd or supernatural involved, no more than there is in the drowsiness of marmots or squirrels.” That idea pleased him, and he repeated, “No more than in marmots or squirrels.”
He added, “And bears too.”
Then, cuffing me on the thigh, “And now, I’m not thinking any more about anything, eh, enough philosophizing; we’re going to ask Gertrude to make us a gin toddy and bring us fresh pipes. Ah! Talk to me about the long pipes from Gouda, they’re varnished with egg-white that give you a taste of fresh hazelnut with the tobacco.”
I took his hand. “Doctor,” I said, “Let me propose that an infant born blind is imprisoned in a big, empty sphere; he lives there, he’s nourished there, he grows there, he’s taught about everything that’s intrinsic to himself and to the sphere. So he’s neither a savage nor a brute. One day, abruptly, by means of a panacea, he’s cured; for the space of an hour he’s faced with the world of colours; then he’s plunged back into eternal darkness and the sphere is closed on him forever. Doctor, would he remember the glimpsed world of light, and could he tell the walls of his jail about his brief adventure?”
The physician bowed his head in rather uneasy reflection.
“He couldn’t tell about anything,” I continued slowly, “because his brain lacks any element that would allow comparison. In his memory, which nevertheless exists, the comparison, the means of measuring the things seen and remembered, is lacking. He would like to shout to the darkness all around that he’s seen something that was different from the usual obscurity, but he’ll remain mute, horribly mute. The new images will wander miserably in the desert of his brain seeking in vain the magical transformation of language.”
The doctor interrupted me: “You’d do better…”
“I beg you, let me carry on speaking; don’t you feel, doctor, that I’m in an abyss? That you throw down ladders and ropes to pull me out, but that it’s useless? No, in spite of his excruciating wish to communicate his life of an hour, his secret remains locked inside, resonating miserably to the four corners of his heart, and no further. But suppose that that either joy or pain had been given him in that hour, would he have the memory of it? I declare that yes, he would.”
“Because that sensation of pain or joy is abstract and belongs to the soul alone, then at least he could cry out its sadness or joyfulness.”
“My child,” he said, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but you aren’t reasoning like a young man of nearly twenty, rather like a lad of fifteen who has read some books behind the back of his friend the doctor.
“And then, where does that get us, dear boy? This metaphysical gobbledegook exhausts the brain and spoils a pleasant evening like this one.”
“Simply to confide to you doctor, that during those years I lived in another world, absolutely unlike the one we live in, and about which I can’t say anything, because I’m like the prisoner of the sphere – nothing… nothing… I only have this unique, abstract memory that I can ironically call my memory of a soul.”
“And,” the doctor asked, wiping his brow suddenly become damp with sweat, “and…”
“Terror, horror, something unparalleled and abominable.”
Doctor Santhorix didn’t leave us as soon as he had planned to.
Not only did he stand guard close by me, he stood sentinel at the door of my thoughts. He monitored my looks, tiring me with a thousand distractions: fishing, tennis, endless games of cards, dominoes, backgammon or draughts.
For instance, he dismissed chess, which was, nevertheless held in high regard in Holland.
“That will tire your meninges,” he’d said hurriedly.
But I’d seen him one day in the cellar attentively reading a book with its pages freshly cut, and underlining something there.
That night I stole the book to read the passage marked with a pencil.
It was a popular explanation of the theories of Einstein; the underlined passage simply stated that the chess player enjoyed the privilege, the strange privilege, shared with some rare, highly accomplished mathematicians, of, for brief fractions of a second, gaining a conception of the fourth dimension.
That told me nothing; in the end it was a matter of words. But I was troubled; the secret fibres of my soul vibrated like a muffled echo to the peals of a mysterious bell, lost in unfathomable darkness.
“The Cunning Chinaman”
I don’t know who coined this hybrid term.
I believe it was a lunatic who suffered from partial memory loss and who went to extreme lengths to document his own deeds and movements of the previous day.
Basically, that’s what I did, without Gertrude and Doctor Santhorix knowing… But I’m getting ahead of myself, this isn’t a game…[i]
My health was restored to a remarkable degree. I’d undertaken glorious fishing expeditions on board the Beautiful Matilda and, Kobus, without a trace of flattery, found genuine saltwater qualities in me.
“With monsieur Jacques at the tiller, I’ve nothing to worry about” he said, “not even if the squalls run in from the west with all the bad smells of England.”
Gertrude was pleased with that, even a little proud.
Apropos of our excellent Gertrude, I want to relate an amusing episode that, for a few hours, dissipated the enduring atmosphere of mystery and the unknown that we seemed to be breathing. Kobus, the fisherman, enjoyed a little bit of prosperity; he owned the fine, decked vessel, The Beautiful Matilda and he had a share in fishing of The New Star, property of his brother-in-law. His little house, which had the charm of a cottage, smoked in the hollow of a dune, and he kept a noisy flock of ducks in a freshwater pool.
But he had no sooner come to know Gertrude than he found his house sad and solitary; he told himself that a woman of character would fit well with the furnishings, and he straightforwardly asked for her hand in marriage. Gertrude threw a temper tantrum.
It was in vain that the doctor and I pointed out to her that this was in the natural order of things and that Kobus, a reliable man, had done nothing that wasn’t appropriate, and even flattering to her. She drove him away with threats. She all but punched him and hit him with some bruising kitchen utensil.
“Doctor,” she said confidentially to Santhorix – who, to my considerable delight betrayed his vow of secrecy – “doctor, at the very thought that a man might be my master, I feel myself become more wicked than a tiger.”
The doctor replied with some delicately veiled pleasantries.
“I swear to you that I’d sooner have my two legs cut off,” she said tranquilly.
In spite of that heroic rebuff, Kobus continued to let me sail in his boat. Tenacious like all his race, he hadn’t lost all hope.
Sometimes, when the fishing was good, Kobus moored in the port of the little nearby town, sold his fish and held a little celebration around the tables of a tavern, The Cunning Chinaman.
I went with him willingly, for their alcohol was choice, richly toned; we drank far more than we talked and dreams drifted up wonderfully with the slow lengths of tobacco smoke, like invisible tinselled clowns on ladders of mist. Martha, the bar owner who served oriflamme-tinted liqueurs, was a magnificent brunette with very matt cheeks; she had arrived from the south one day, with a sailor who had then abandoned her.
She sat for hours at her high counter, her gaze lost beyond the red velvet curtains, resting on the fluttering pennants on the masts, showing now the south, now the north, declaring that, more than anywhere, adventure, is found on the high seas.
I wasn’t the only landlubber who frequented The Cunning Chinaman; sometimes a tall, weasel-faced, bleary-eyed chap, came dragging his paw and drank a little glass of Schiedam.
“He smells of musk, like an animal in a Javanese forest,” said one of the rough and ready drinkers who had fought in the heat of the Indies. “I prefer the smell of fish or coal tar, or a twist of tobacco.”
One day a greasy card was seen stuck to the frame of a mirror and I read, Gerrit Houtepenne – Commercial intelligence, maritime insurance.
“It’s the brute who stinks,” Kobus said to me when he saw me reading the business card.
Martha’s gaze, detaching itself the scorched earth of the feverish pennants, came, very gently, to rest on me.
“We’re going back to the boats monsieur Jacques,” said Kobus. “If you want, we’ll pick you up from here when we return.”
I was alone with Martha.
What happened was simple, very straightforward, and with, I’d say, an automatic rightness.
Without a word said she left the counter, approached my table and put her lips to mine.
“There,” she said, pointing to a heavy curtain that cloaked a back room.
She led me by the hand, energetically, almost wrenching my wrist.
The room was dim, a spirit-lamp threw a spectral flame toward a red copper kettle; cat’s eyes watched from the shadows.
Another, darker room after that one; the light of the preceding chamber filtered through a leaded window from a hesitant, verdigris-coloured day.
I had an impression of déjà vu. A divan groaned under our combined weight, I felt a freezing material, scaly as the skin of a snake.
I saw nothing of Martha except an outstretched whiteness. My hands sought her breasts, they were cold, hard, powerful.
“Your hand,” she moaned, “your hand on my heart. “Oh, that such a relief, that’s such a relief!”
The disagreeable impression flared up again, still more sharply.
I left Martha’s body still shuddering. In the gloomy antechamber, the flame of the spirit lamp danced higher, the kettle had started to mutter a guttural ritual.
Someone coughed in the barroom and I found M. Gerrit Houtepenne in front of me, commercial intelligencer and maritime insurer.
He greeted me with his usual composure, seeming unsurprised to see me bursting out of the inner sanctum of The Cunning Chinaman.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he began, “Maybe I can be useful to you?”
“But,” I said, surprised, “I’m not a businessman or a ship-owner either.”
“My card says commercial intelligence, but I can produce one for every occasion.”
“And even so, M. Houtepenne, what has that got to do with me?”
“Oh, is that what you think?”
Martha had silently seated herself once more behind her counter; a heavy dark ring of fatigue made her eyes immense. M. Houtepenne himself went to fetch us two glasses of gin.
“Is that what you think?” he repeated
How did that happen?
Time must have passed, for evening shadows were already creeping into the silent street; but M. Gerrit Houtepenne poured us another glass and, in his portfolio, clutched a printed bulletin containing a completed questionnaire. I downed my glass in one gulp.
“You’re a hard drinker, monsieur Jacques,” he said, “but now look at Martha, she resembles…”
“Whoo!” I cried, and I suddenly remembered having previously uttered an identical cry.
Two red flames lengthened upward, glowing in the shadows.
But this time I was possessed by an imbecile anger.
“Boske, dirty, disgusting Boske,” I yelled, “I’m going to sort you out once and for all!”
I could scarcely make him out in the dark, but his voice sneered.
“My dear child, haven’t you learned to see yet? That’s commendable for the first fifteen minutes, but after so many years!”
I heard his bandy legs stepping on the floor.
Suddenly a frightful gurgling noise emerged from the counter, followed by soft collapse and dirty hiccup.
“It’s not about today; it’s in time,” the detestable voice said.
My fist came down hard. It met a face and triggered a sharp cry of pain.
“Well, Monsieur Jacques, that’s what I call a fine punch-up,” said Kobus, smiling pleasantly.
I looked about, stupefied.
The bar of The Cunning Chinaman was brilliantly lit.
“Poor M. Gerrit, you really went to town on him,”Kobus said, “But in spite of the blood pouring out of his big nose he isn’t mad at you. He forgives your drunkenness.”
“I’m drunk?” I said, and I passed a feverish hand over my forehead. What had happened?
In a bright voice, Martha explained. I’d drunk an enormous quantity of gin; I’d spoken to M. Houtepenne, and it seemed as though I was asleep. Suddenly I got up screeching like an owl and floored M. Houtepenne with powerful blow of my fist, right in the face.
“No doubt about it,” said Kobus with his cheerful laugh, “you’re becoming more and more like one of us; a fist in the stinking jackal’s face, that suits me, that suits me… Martha, some English whisky, old stuff, ultra-old stuff.”
Just when I was going on board the Beautiful Mathilda to throw some of our nets along sandbanks yellow in the sunlight, the postman discreetly brought me a double ration of “strictly personal” mail.
The first letter was from Rotterdam, from a serious agency that I had consulted on the subject of M. Gerrit Houtepenne. He was, they wrote, a dependable, sober employee, who had suffered conjugal upsets and a number of setbacks. There followed perfectly valid official documents cluttered with administrative stamps and forms.
Also a second, thicker one contained the account of a strange and supernatural occurrence in a little provincial town.
A house had been savagely bombarded with stones and heavy pebbles thrown by unknown hands. At the same time, the building had gone up in flames; the fire, seeming to start in twenty different places, had caught hold with incredible intensity. A housemaid had been killed and a young man there had gone mad.
The only steam-driven pump in the town had been badly damaged in fighting the fire. That was a disaster because a few hours later, without warning, a baker’s shop caught fire. The fire couldn’t be extinguished, and all the baker’s family had died in the sudden blaze.
A short note from M. Luddig, school headmaster, was attached, stating that there had never been a pupil named David Boske in his institution. In this way I learned about the horrifying death of poor Berthe, my first frail mistress, furtively enjoyed in unlit crannies as luck allowed, and the bizarre, imaginary existence of the pupil David Boske, whom I remembered having seen from my earliest scholarly days on the last bench un the classroom.
The Beautiful Matilda swayed on the waves like a street girl.
The seabed’s hundred hands clutched at the drag-net that was stealing its guests.
The boat’s plimsoll line dipped as the nets poured the glaucous harvest of the abyss onto its deck. The plaice perished there with loud clapping noises; you would have thought that they knew they were onlooker’s at life’s ultimate spectacle, and that they applauded wildly.
The haddock had filled their celluloid heads with air, and their mouths formed positively ridiculous little rings; the tenacious and mysterious soles sought the starboard or larboard sides to merge with the dark tan wood; shortly they would have to be peeled off like living skin.
The North Sea was milky, without great opalescent swells, massed like monstrous absinthe. Coal-ships from Hull and Goole steered a fast course almost side by side, disregarding the laws of the sea, with the full propulsive power of their panting engines.
“We’re going to haul up the drag-net,” said Kobus.
Muscles strained to bursting point. The lines, tauter than harp-strings, vibrated like deep crystal at the slightest shock.
“It’s heavy,” coughed one of the sailors. “If it’s plaice in there then we’ve earned our crust.”
But suddenly Kobus swore.
He’d just seen smooth wet leather struggling furiously in the net.
“A porpoise, dear God above! It’s going to tear our nets!”
“Release the net. Maybe it’ll swim free, the poor bugger, without too causing too much damage.”
But I’d already intervened.
“Try to haul her in, Kobus; gin for everyone, as much we have in store, and if it rips your nets, any damage paid for.”
“Let’s do it,” Kobus cried happily, above all to please me.
With a dull sound, the creature tumbled out amidst the flopping rain of small, plump and fleshy plaice. Foam slid it under my bench. The fat, oily beast, feeling itself captured, no longer squirmed, heavily resigned; only its tail fanned our feet with a spasmodic movement.
It resembled a torpedo in a black, shiny leather jacket. I gave it a kick with my foot, a dull blow to the firm but tender flesh. The beast uttered the croak of a small, butchered sparrow, making the crew laugh.
“Kobus,” I said, “give me your knife.”
Whenever he had a spare moment he whetted and sharpened his knife on the side of the boat, on a taut halyard, on a mussel shell or on his boot; the blade was as sharp as a scream.
“Give,” I repeated.
For a moment I waved it above the beast’s wet leather, then I slid the knife in with a firm movement. The beast leapt up and once more lay quiet. The leather gaped open, then thick blood welled out like heavy grade oil.
“Take that’” I muttered, my lips moving as though in loathing, and this time the knife sliced across skin and cartilaginous vertebrae.
The beast jerked up, its maw snatched at the air like hog’s snout and a gush of fatty blood covered my hands.
“And again,” I went, “and again”, cutting the palpitating beast in big red slices.
“So you see, Monsieur Jacques,” said Kobus with his unfailingly amiable laugh, “You’re really becoming one of us.”
I thought that his laugh rang false and that those of the other fishermen were equally constrained.
This cruelty must have looked peculiar and pointless to them. How could a city boy who usually wore white flannels and khaki silk take pleasure in covering himself with the oily blood of one of these big sea beasts? And then too, a single knife blow would have served.
But they found that the Schiedam, drunk from blue stoneware jugs, was cool and delicious, and quickly forgot the bloody end of the stupid pig of the sea that let itself get caught in the nets.
Kobus comes to ask me if I haven’t found his knife, the loss of which bothers him a little.
“Such a good blade, monsieur Jacques can confirm.”
“I haven’t seen it,” I say, “but here’s a florin to buy a replacement.”
He goes away, somewhat consoled, but he would have preferred his old knife.
It needed five or six bitterjes, three cups of coffee and a Schiedam to put some spirit back into Keetje, who came to inform us of the dreadful occurrence that had soaked the nearby little town in blood.
Martha, the owner of The Cunning Chinaman, had been murdered during the night.
And atrociously finished off at that, the S’chout[ii] had said, hacked up like a pig, throat cut, stomach sliced open, eyes pierced.
“And the guilty party?” I asked. “Do they know who he is? Are they on his trail?”
The answer apparently was yes; Martha’s old lover, a Portuguese sailor had been seen in the vicinity.
“Only foreigners would be capable of such viciousness,” Keetje declared.
The fishermen were sorrowful.
After the billowing seas and the dim days of wind and rain, The Cunning Chinaman was the safest of havens.
That evening we drank lots of gin, and all kinds of prettily coloured liqueurs, and the party was almost fun.
Kobus had been invited and Gertrude didn’t say a cross word to him.
Kobus talked about my ferocious killing of the porpoise.
“To think that much the same thing was done that night to poor Martha,” he said, half-jokingly.
Keetje started to laugh, and Gertrude too, while pretending that it wasn’t a joking matter.
It was a splendid night, the distant sea burned with fugitive green lights. I went with Kobus to the nearby mole, and to the far north and south, he named for me the fixed lights and the rapid luminous gaze of the revolving signals.
For a long time I stared into the distance, heavy with moving shadows; boats were conspicuous by their lights, travelling in threes; I let Kobus’s knife fall softly into the water.[iii]
For several minutes I tried to listen to the conversation between Doctor Santhorix and Gertrude.
I didn’t always understand, but the word “leave” cropped up like a leitmotif.
“The thing has come back,” the doctor said in a hoarse voice. “It’s got him in its grip again. We have to leave…leave.”
“Yes, leave,” Gertrude murmured. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh, it’ll catch him again,” the doctor groaned. “Is there anywhere in the world where it won’t find him?”
“I’ll go all over the world,” said Gertrude fiercely, “I’ll change places every day, I’ll walk the night with that child on my arm, and it’ll always find me with him…”
“It’ll be necessary,” the doctor continued somberly, “to separate him from men, follow him if need be, keep him away from everyone. I should also say, alas, from everything. God knows what it’s hiding in.”
“Tell me, doctor,” she asked anxiously, do you already know it more than I do? That thing, what is it exactly?”
She lowered her voice, I could scarcely hear her.
“Tell me, does it come from far away?… maybe from his birth?”
The doctor shook his head.
“It’s not that. At bottom, Jacques knows more about it than we do, but doesn’t know how to say it; his tongue is bound by a terrifying veto. He has recollections that are… colossal; beyond his memory, if I can put it that way… He can only say one thing: that it’s frightening, abominable…”
“Oh,” Gertrude groaned, “why this inhuman weight on a child’s shoulders?”
“Yes my friend,” the practitioner continued soberly, “for four years we lost Jacques, or rather his soul. It was imprisoned in a place that was terrible beyond all conception. How has he been able to come back? Why? The place that I can only speak about with apprehension, does it permit an escape as unprecedented as his? Doesn’t it tyrannically require that the fugitive comes back?”
“God!” Gertrude cried, “could it…”
“Gertrude, haven’t we been taught that the damned drag with them everywhere the atmosphere of terror to which they’re eternally bound?”
The poor woman uttered a prolonged sob.
As for me, I listened calmly, as though an almost alien person was being talked about, someone barely known.
“Yes,” the doctor continued, “isolate him, and, above all Gertrude, he must be kept far away from women, because it’s in that form that the nightmare shows itself.”
Gertrude growled angrily, like an animal afflicted with a wound.
“If only it didn’t only depend on me,” she said hoarsely.
“It’ll be difficult, nearly impossible. The boy’s senses have been awakened as though with the lashes of a whip. And so it’s a really formidable awakening.”
Gertrude sighed. There was a silence.
“You’ll have a hard time of it, my friend…”
But she suddenly she drew up to her full height.
“Doctor,” she said, and I didn’t recognize her voice. “Well, well… I once said to you that I’d sooner cut off my two legs. But my little Jacques, the thing mustn’t come back – mustn’t – I don’t want him to go back down there…”
They cried, both of them.
I went to my room, upset.
I remembered a pyrogravure torn from some magazine and stuck to the back of a press in our old house: Mme Favart with the Emperor Napoleon III.
“Gertrude,” I always said when looking into that cupboard, “you look like that woman.”
At other times, during drowsy history lessons, I pictured to myself Juno’s anger; Gertrude, in an auxiliary décor, threatening the grocer’s boy or the plumber-cum-zinc worker with the direst catastrophes.
And here Gertrude was no longer Gertrude, she started to move in a bizarre, erotic setting; I saw the depths of her eyes, I felt her strong arms, her body suddenly appeared splendid to me, supple, feline.
We bowled through the solitude of the Ardennes forests.
A villa was waiting us in the middle of a vast fir plantation.
Doctor Santhorix had left us, but in several weeks time he would come to stay with us for a while.
I half closed my eyes. I observed Gertrude in the way you observe a future victim. She too, dimly, felt the hot breath of holocausts rise toward her. I saw her energetically crossing her legs now and then, as though groping hands, imaginary ones, were putting her at risk.
Then she saw that she had been dreaming, and gently caressed my hands. But notwithstanding that struggle involving her whole being, her hands remained pure, full of their celestial love for her imminent executioner.
Gertrude! Gertrude! I’d like to shout that that will never happen… but I know that in our first moment of solitude, I’ll love your sacrifice…
Gertrude, my oldest friend
Well no, it wasn’t in the first moment. For a long time I was able to think that the enemy hadn’t followed me to my new retreat.
It was one evening watching from the villa’s little terrace the blonde halo of the nearby town glow in the sky that the thing came about.
“Gertrude,” I said, “the evening is so beautiful, I’m going to take a walk to the town for a couple of hours. I’ll come back tomorrow.”
I observed Gertrude sideways; she’d gone terribly pale.
“So late,” she murmured.
I wanted to make light of it.
“You well know that this is a country of angels and little saints, Gertrude. Not even chicken eggs are stolen.”
I took my hat off the peg.
I saw Gertrude’s hands twisting.
Slowly I reached the door.
“Good night Gertrude. Till tomorrow.”
It was energetic, brief, it was worse than a door closed with a double lock.
I gave an idiotic laugh.
“Come on now Gertrude, I’m not a child any more…”
Out of cruelty, I stopped speaking; she trembled like a rose bush in a tempest.
“You have to understand, Gertrude.”
“I understand,” she said, speaking in a whisper.
She was in front of me. Her mouth was bitter but her eyes were still the same eyes, faithful and full of affection.
“I understand,” she repeated.
Then, quite simply, I reached out my hand and undid the first button of her blouse. A bit of her shoulder appeared, the flesh tawny, bistre.
She uttered a pained cry.
“Monsieur Jacques, I held you in my arms as a baby…”
An inner revolt shook me like two brutal hands.
“I’m sorry, Gertrude, sorry…”
She had slipped in front of the door and locked it with the key.
Her eyes didn’t leave mine, then slowly, but without trembling, she removed her blouse. Her arms appeared, tanned, firm, her armpits full of shadows…
As I remained standing there, nonplussed, seeing her skirts fall, and her strong legs nakedly shivering in the night air, she it was who pulled me with a hard grip toward the bedroom.
In a flash of memory I recalled the terrible agony of my wrists broken the first time when poor Berthe, upset, defended herself, then the day when I supported the frightful burden of Roméone’s breasts, and the obscure afternoon when Martha leaned over me.
A mattress groaned, Gertrude had stretched out.
I looked at her on the bed, cold, teeth clenched. I believe that she was praying in the depths of her soul.
“Gertrude,” I said.
“Come here Jacques,” she said simply, “it has to be.”
When my body touched hers she uttered a dull, fierce roar and remained turned away from me for a long moment, then, her firm, muscled legs closed on mine. A rough fleece caressed my skin.
I thrust toward her with obstinate, almost brutal force.
In pain, she emitted an immense cry.
If I could hope that one day, one minute of redemption would bathe me in its pure dawn, then I would remember those lamentable hours of love with shame and remorse, then I would howl all my distress toward the Heavens for having taken such intense delight from the suffering of a being who was as dear to me as Gertrude.
From the very first, her physical pain was cruelly delightful to me; her lupine teeth ground together, held in a vise by the distant bites inflicted on her flanks. Sometimes her nerves exploded in a cry of damnation.
“Jacques, Jacques, you’re killing me, you’re tearing me open!”
Afterwards, humbly, tearfully, she said that I could not be angry with her.
Pretending to sleep, I heard the soft noise of her hands kneading the flesh of her belly.
“Oh, it hurts! Oh, it hurts!”
In the early hours of the morning she quietly got up to hide the bloody nighttime linen in inaccessible corners.
One day however, her stiff muscles, those of an aging virgin, melted under my caresses. She confided to me that she suffered less. My pleasure diminished and the familiar demon of my base urges suggested to me a better and harsher game.
Until now, Gertrude had consented to being love’s pathetic beast of burden… Inasmuch she was a female she admitted that this femininity served definite, almost automatic ends; but when her suffering went beyond bounds, it was a pure absolute where, instead of considering her as a nocturnal slave I treated her as a beloved mistress.
I kissed her protractedly on her poor lips, I invented caresses of the utmost novelty, that made her honest flesh tremble in horror; I encircled her twilight nudity with a décor of dying roses; the lamp was veiled with opalescent silks, and lingering perfumes burned with a soft noise at the feet of lascivious statues. An amorous princess from a fabulous orient would have felt the charm.
She – Gertrude… It seemed to me, when I lay on her naked breasts, that I heard the tempest of her soiled soul raging.
“Jacques,” she sometimes wept, “this isn’t the way I love you!”
Hypocritically, I then offered to end this painful liaison, I begged for her pardon…
But then she looked in terror at the paling lights of the town.
She begged me to do nothing, caressing me clumsily, promising me nights of frenzy.
Once I awakened her, asking if she remembered rejecting Kobus, saying, “sooner cut my legs off.”
“Yes, yes,” she gurgled, “sooner…”
But she abruptly changed her mind and gave a poor little girl’s excuse.
“I was naïve. I didn’t know anything Jacques, I love you, take me…”
“Monsieur Jacques, I’m astonished at not having seen Doctor Santhorix come back. I wrote to him.”
“Ah,” I went, “very good Gertrude…”
I looked at her stealthily; her features were drawn, her body seemed heavier. Sometimes she groaned in a low voice.
“You aren’t well, Gertrude.”
“No, monsieur Jacques.”
Our friend’s reply didn’t arrive until after three weeks of our combined uneasiness.
The good Doctor Santhorix wouldn’t be coming, he’d been consigned to a wheelchair by an apoplectic stroke. Paralysed, his intellectual faculties affected, he ended up in sunlit hills, in a friend’s sanatorium.
He was replaced by his disciple, Dr. Selig Nathanson.
An obsequious Jew who, before anything else, talked to me about exorbitant fees, to which, moreover, I agreed.
He sounded Gertrude with his stethoscope, let out little cries of admiration.
“It’s very rare, but not impossible, at forty six years old, a primipare.”
Then, with a charming smile he declared that she was pregnant.
She became huge, her body acquired fantastic proportions. It was in the eighth month of pregnancy when, waking up one morning, she took my hand and put it on her naked stomach.
“It’s no longer alive,” she said. “It died last night.”
Eight days later she lay in labour, assisted by Dr. Nathanson and an old midwife from the town.
The infant emerged, colossal, with a head like a hollowed out mappemonde, eyes, mouth, fists furiously clenched, blue into the bargain. Dead.
Appalled, the midwife took the hideous homunculus and sprinkled it with a little water.
“I baptize you,… uhm, Etienne…” she said.
She added grumblingly,
“You never know, although it’s as dead as a dodo.”
For eighteen hours Gertrude’s inhuman suffering rattled in her throat, then she uttered a cry that was so violent that the crystal chandelier pendants trembled in a long lament.
Her breath sank rapidly, one of her breasts, naked and swollen, burst from her chemise, a grey thread of milk flowed, then, resting her head on her shoulder with the gesture of a little girl, she died.
Berthe burned alive in an inexplicable inferno.
Gertrude dead from a monstrous childbirth.
“You’ll bring death in its most hideous garb to those who will love you, in exchange for their souls and the trembling of their flesh.”
Have I read that stupid sentence, has it been uttered in front of me, has it arisen from the depths of my mysterious self?
It seems to me that in a nameless nightmare, from a formidable secret on which I turned my freed back, a terrifying voice hurled that anathema to pursue me in the night.
“The maker of Monsters”
It rained, it rained with the regular noise of a sewing machine.
The doctor had gone. I didn’t miss this smooth and fluent Jew.
More vexing was the departure of the midwife, who declared, not without insolence, that she didn’t handle the dead, and that if people wanted a proper wake then they shouldn’t live like wolves, so far from men.
Seeing as I paid royally for her paltry services and, what’s more, poured her a generous measure of very old Armagnac, all fiery copper, she unthawed a little and said that the house made her ill, that there were things, things…”
“What things?” I asked.
“Ah well, things,” she finished with a broad, vague gesture…
I remained alone with my dead, and then I felt that the “things” were lying in wait.
From the hateful evening when Boske accompanied me from school, and aside from the brief moment of nightmare at The Cunning Chinaman, and in spite of so many tragedies, I knew that I no longer felt them around me, “the things”.
A crime in the night, a death in childbirth, the birth of a little deformed monster, these are events that sicken you, but that don’t exceed the natural order of our human life; they only bring revulsion with them, not fear.
And the “things” created Fear. Abject Fear that neither the strength of your muscles nor you’re the discoveries of your intellect are able to dispel, no more than it can unhook the moon…
Gertrude’s death had left the forest villa in a sorry state of disorder.
Tables and marble console tops were sticky from a scattered regiment of glasses, all the furniture was littered with cups, corrosive red rust had spread to the kitchen utensils, and still it continued raining, obstinately noisy, on the bedraggled plants in the park.
From the window of the little salon furnished with an (?) old-fashioned and faded arabe[iv], I saw, through a vista of groves and thickets, the desert-like plain steaming, humid and rotting.
Life had fled. For a short time, the black speck of a buzzard was stitched in a cloud, like bad acne on a puffy face. Frightened wood pigeons took flight after flight toward the dripping covert, and after that the wilderness, exhausted, gave up any attempt to swathe itself in movement.
Suddenly the house’s silence broke like a glass rod.
There was a confused and painful noise.
“It’s Gertrude,” I said, and climbed toward the gloomy bedroom where the dead were sleeping.
However they were still sleeping, the child heavily swaddled in linen in a makeshift cradle, Gertrude, yellow, gaunt, very sombre.
“All the same, it’s them,” I said, then lost all curiosity.
I returned to the little salon and poured myself a coppery Armagnac in a delicate pink porcelain cup.
A bizarre object had started moving at the far end of the plain, in clear outline against the washed horizon, singularly distanced by the plain. I made out an elongated insect progressing jerkily on four slender legs.
“It’s a dirty creature,” I said, “but it’ll take a good two hours to arrive here.”
Two hours to drink the strong alcohol. That would supply me with the courage I needed to confront that unidentified vermin. Just then, something heavy and clumsy bounced on the stairs, but my curiosity was dead.
Painfully, the insect grew as far as the margin of a wilderness lashed by drenching rains.
I could still make out nothing of its nature, except that it was extremely ugly.
I drained the pink porcelain cup and loudly voiced the absurd notion that, in spite of everything and as unlikely as it was, it remained within the natural order of things.
I became aware that I was saying that for the benefit of “something that was going past in the kitchen beside me.”
Commonplace noises, the clink of glasses being rinsed, plenty of water poured for washing up, objects being shelved. I heard a match being struck, then, some time later, a kettle started to boil.
“It’s Gertrude,” I said. “It’s only Gertrude.”
Then I heard loud movements, as though somebody was brusquely pushing some obstacle out of the way.
“Only eight bottles of Armagnac left,” I muttered. “What a pity.”
The kettle’s pianissimo purring gave way to a shrill note.
Now the insect was advancing over the plain at a good rate. It had become very big.
I felt then that there was someone in the kitchen who, just like me, was observing the ridiculous creature marching through the mud, and that the housekeeping noises accelerated in time with the insect, as though their respective paces, were regulated by the same mysterious rhythm.
When a ridge in the plain hid it from view there was an attentive silence in the neighbouring room, and as it reappeared, now closer, the noises accelerated convulsively, as though for an invisible task that needed to be completed.
“Oh, now I understand.” I gestured approvingly toward the now silent kitchen.
It was Gertude’s coffin that two men from the town were bringing to our house.
Two charming and cheerful companions.
They laid Gertrude out in the narrow yellow box, rigid and long… long.
They turned their backs on me and their hammer-blows rang like gongs.
I saw their shoulders bent attentively over the coffin and their arms raised as though for a quarrel among puppets.
I was beside the cradle when the infant abruptly opened its eyes. They were as red as red-hot iron.
“Whoo!” I cried.
But the men didn’t hear me because their hammer blows fell thick and fast.
“We’re forgetting the child,” one of them said.
They placed it between Gertrude’s arms. I saw that its eyes, eaten away by decomposition, were as empty as bladders. Dried serous fluids had coloured them red.
I heard one of the men whisper in his companion’s ear,
“Hey, here’s a ‘maker of monsters’, a right and proper one.”
Only a little astonished, I murmured,
“Well, so it was that, was it?”
Energetically, the hammers played a diabolical marionette dance.
Six bottle of Armagnac are empty!
It’s still raining, but it’s raining in a black night. The windows have reached a polished perfection.
These two companions are charming and cheerful.
“Bang! Bang!” says the hammer, “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.”
“Let’s drink some coffee to keep us awake,” I say. “It’s freshly brewed.”
The coffee is ready, committed to the prudently lowered fame of the spirit lamp.
Gertrude’s good warm coffee that awaited me at four o’clock on my return from school.
I acknowledge that only she can make it like that. My thoughts become loving.
The kitchen is clean, everything in order.
“Bang! Bang!” says the hammer, “Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.”
We uncork the seventh.
“I mistook you for a big black insect,” I say in a contrite voice.
They reply considerately that I mustn’t blame myself over such a trifle.
“There are,” they say, “very honorable insects.”
The rain taps, taps, obstinately, with child’s fingers.
Upstairs, there’s a gigantic noise that shakes the whole house; the coffin is leaping like a tiger.
It shatters furniture like an antique battering ram. The cupboards burst, the broken shards of mirrors make a trilling noise like cascades of water.
At each noisy new breakage we applaud enthusiastically.
The coffin jumps, jumps, jumps, as though it was a diving bell on joint feet.
“It’s solid wood,” one of the men says, “it’ll hold.”
“And then it’s nailed like you wouldn’t believe,” the other replies.
“Bang! Bang! Bang!” The last bottle is on the table.
End of Part 1
Ten times I paid option deposits to book my place on whichever transatlantic liner was heading for Rio or Indochina.
With a red pencil a Spanish or Dutch agent made a bright little mark on an outspread plan, explaining with a dancer’s smile that it was my cabin.
I never left. I realized in time that the Earth is only big when viewed from Europe; once across the Atlantic or past Colombo it shrinks and stifles you like a mezzanine floor.
Today I awoke to the Place de la République, to the bustle of everyday life.
Paris’s great mouth breathes into my face. Ah! The smell, absolutely sui generis, of the world’s capitals convinced me that these cities are distinct organisms, somberly, savagely alive, with innumerable and confused living cells, like human bodies, or nests of termites, fearful octopuses, clinging greedily to the telluric epidermis.
Paris smells of warm yeast, coffee and chicory; London, boot-polish; Amsterdam, a mildewed cupboard; Copenhagen, crushed strawberries; Berlin, phosphorous; Bremen, pyrethrin; Prague, the sugary breath of consumptives.
And I ask myself why several of my awakenings on the Baltic, amid the musty smell of old German or Swedish boats, had an obstinate scent of tuberoses.
Wanderings. I’m fleeing. Who? What? Do I know?
As a child, when the road was straight, full of sunlight, I galloped like a young horse to see if my shadow was able to follow me, and when I turned round, out of breath, I always hoped to see its flat silhouette sorrowfully isolated and broken on the pavement.
In the end, am I doing nothing more than fleeing a shadow fastened to my soul?
Yes, but what shadow?
Wanderings. I could write them down in an elementary equation whose common factors are some Parisian theatre galleries, Toulon’s street of love, the girls, the gin and the pink hats under the blue lights of Commercial Road, the oily, unimaginable road of Brest’s ancient jail, the accumulated stupidity of Anvers, suddenly purified.
Its route switches, it loops round, it passes by the small town… no doubt grown in importance.
Ha! What does it matter, passing down there, by the station, I’ll try to sleep.
No one recognized me…
A station employee greeted her… not me.
A big luminous sign splashed across the station’s sunken concourse, orange neon people rather than passers by. “White’s Grand Stores.”
“My little man,” her voice whispered, “my little pet, who I’m going to make love to.”
A dirty church smell slid the words into the nape of my neck. In the train, she’d emptied her bottle of Guerlain’s Heure Bleu.
“No one recognized me,” I said… “Yes, a country rat in a glissade performed on little wheels more than on paws; he spied on me from a hole, his pink eyes glowed. I recognized Jérôme Meyer. But it was a rat, nothing but a rat.”
We went in by a concealed door, smell of new fabrics being prepared, a white corridor leading us to a delightful boudoir.
I now knew what had to be; I was calm, almost happy.
“I’m going to make myself pretty,” she said, taking shelter behind an old pink velvet hanging.
The divan was big, like an extended club, the coolness of leather contending with huge pink silk cushions that matched the drapery and the panels.
“I’m coming,” a voice said in the adjoining room.
…I’d met her in the train; she accosted me like a streetwalker, with an agreed price; but…
But my soul bathed itself in an infinite clarity because I felt that I was walking my destiny’s true path. And, in a kind of amorous transport that had surprised and charmed her, I accepted.
I remained stretched out on the leather divan, my hand straying among the trinkets on a dressing table.
A miniature Chinese razor in the form of a sickle made me utter a little cry of admiration.
“What is it my sweet little friend?” she said in a pleasant and slightly suspicious voice. “Anyway, here I am.”
“It’s this; I think it’s pretty,” I said, reaching out to her with the clear steel sickle.
She leaned toward me.
“Oh!” I said, “Madame Bullus.”
I would have preferred it if those horrible screams hadn’t happened. But is that possible without them?
Destiny determines the angle of the frame, however slight and the gesture, however slight, of the things, that it must enclose.
You see, everything is foreseen, from the giant course of Betelgeuse to the mysterious fever of the electrons.
Why would we escape that, Madame Bullus?
She wore pyjamas with silver and red-gold spangles.
Roméone,” I said, “has everyone gone?”
“Yes,” she said. “The shutters are closed, come and help me to support my pain.”
Carefully, I exited the closet that held my anxiety captive and went down carpeted stairs of luminous snow.
Down below, it was warm with recent presences.
I reached my hands toward her breast.
“It’s swollen up since yesterday,” she said. “It’s used up all my strength.”
“It’s heavy, it’s heavy…”
“It’s only your hand that’s able to comfort me.”
“There are men out in the street, Roméone.”
“They won’t come in, because your hand comforts me.”
She turned her reddened gaze toward the door.
“For as long as your hand comforts me,” she said.
A mad rush of people could be heard, then a rattling of sabres, brief orders, cries of fear.
“They’ve found Herckenslach,” she murmured distantly.
Her breast stretched like a balloon.
“Hold it up,” she said.
“My hands can’t take it any more Roméone,” I said.
Her stare burned with a fierce despair.
“You must, you must… if not, they’ll come,” she breathed through her black mouth.
“Ow, hey!” someone at my back giggled.
“Roméone,” I begged.
“It’s nothing,” she cried furiously. “Will you shut up, ugly swine.”
“Shut up,” said the voice.
“It’s a champagne advert,” she said.
A touch of relief showed on her humdrum face.
“It’s the hour of repose,” she murmured, “the time when the day’s work finishes. People smile at the idleness of evening, at the tenderness of the coming night, and it’s in the forgetting of their hatreds and terrors that the cutting edge of the hour is dulled.”
She intoned that hymn like a poor countrywoman in the corner of a chapel.
“Rest your hands, friend, I’m not suffering, and there are no bad noises in the street.”
She remained motionless, clothed by the light of the declining evening.
A flame started to dance carefully behind the tinted glass windows. I didn’t know what mystery their boreal tints veiled, and Roméone’s reddened eyes sometimes brooded on them, but now, in the respite from her suffering, she seemed to sleeping.
The light spread like a veil.
My heart calmed down, I offered her my smile, she moved rhythmically to dances sweet as desires.
It was Roméone who awoke me.
“Listen,” she said.
“Is it rain?” I said. “The wind from the mountains?”
“Those are men,” she said.
The street foamed black with fury.
I felt my face freezing cold.
“They’re calling for you,” she whispered.
“Roméone,” I begged, “get rid of them, get rid of them, I’ll let your breasts crush my hands.”
“Can I still do it?” she murmured.
“Your eyes! Your gaze turned on them will provide a barrier, even to their suspicions.”
On the ceiling a weak bulb lit up.
“Roméone,” I cried, moving my hand to ward off the frightful image of pus trickling from black-ringed eyes.
“Only my voice and my heart,” she said, “still live on in me.”
She was no longer anything but a formless mass of shadows amidst the room’s obscurity.
Suddenly the building shook as though hit by a tornado; a roulade of blows rumbled on the street door.
“Open up!” voices yelled.
I descended to the gloomy ground floor room. There was only that juddering door between me and the anger of the street.
Then a fearsome cry went up, like a summoning of wolves to the new moon.
The interior windows radiated like a nonpareil prism.
An iron implement splintered the door, foul oaths vomited as far as my ears.
Howls of rage now kept time with the blows of hammer and crowbar.
Then the Buddha rolled to the ground from the mantlepiece, releasing a cloud of dust.
“Are you ready?” Boske asked me.
It was him, my class-mate, and the Dutch agent, and I even saw in him a resemblance to Dr. Selif Nathanson and the two cabinet-makers from the night of the burial…
But his face was sombre, devoid of irony.
“Come with me Jacques.”
“Yes, I’m tired, very tired.”
Wails came down from the upper floor; a formless mass crawled at my feet.
“I’m in pain, I’m in pain!” the living bundle of rags groaned.
Boske’s pale face turned pitilessly toward that wailing filth.
“That’s only as it should be. Do you think it was for nothing that you were guardian of the filthy and formidable door?”
“Leave him to me,” she murmured.
“No,” said the pitiless voice. “Right now you’re love, in another second you’ll be hate.”
Then I saw a strange face rise toward me, a tormented face, like a momentary wave and that took on the form of numberless faces.
“Berthe!” I sobbed… “Martha!… Gertrude!… Oh Gertrude! The little…
“Old Mme. Bellus,” I went, turning my horrified eyes away from the slashed throat… and from others… and from others…
I saw once more distinct scenes of nighttime ascents, I heard the cries of agony well up from lonely backstreets, I smelled the stench of blood in isolated houses… rooms with blood-spattered beds in squalid hotels passed by in procession… I saw the expertly dismembered limbs of street girls thrown to voracious dogs and cats in lice-infested hinterlands. I heard the voice of hawkers shouting in French, in German, in Dutch, in Swedish, the news of crimes discovered at dawn.
Suddenly the door burst open, a wild-looking mob swarmed behind it, in the gleam of torches and lanterns.
“Come on,” said Boske.
He overturned the squat, oriental green stone figurine and threw it against windows that shattered into slivers.
A clock struck, twelve silver chimes, Behind the broken windows I saw a dusky path open up, its parallel lines almost fusing together bin perspective, hollow, as in smoke held in suspension, and terminating in an indescribable, tormenting red glow.
“Well,” said Boske, “there are child prodigies even down there.”
He smiled sadly.
“I’ll follow you,” I said.
My heart was quiet, at peace.
I could still hear the door smash open and the crowd charge in. But my feet were already walking a path of black velvet, and the noise of that human fury only reached me as a murmur of the last sigh of a breeze in the tall poplars standing in the happy tranquility of a fine evening.
[i] Text scored out in the manuscript
[ii] Bailiff, or Sheriff’s officer (nt).
[iii] Twenty pages missing here.
[iv] “De la fenêtre du petit salon meublé d’un (?) arabe.” The parenthetical question mark, seeming to signal a problematic term, is reproduced from the Phenix edition (nt).