IT is always interesting, even in the prisoner’s dock, to hear oneself being talked about. And certainly in the speeches of my lawyer and the prosecuting counsel a great deal was said about me; more, in fact, about me personally than about my crime.
Really there wasn’t any very great difference between the two speeches. Counsel for the defense raised his arms to heaven and pleaded guilty, but with extenuating circumstances. The Prosecutor made similar gestures; he agreed that I was guilty, but denied extenuating circumstances.
One thing about this phase of the trial was rather irksome. Quite often, interested as I was in what they had to say, I was tempted to put in a word, myself. But my lawyer had advised me not to. “You won’t do your case any good by talking,” he had warned me. In fact, there seemed to be a conspiracy to exclude me from the proceedings; I wasn’t to have any say and my fate was to be decided out of hand.
It was quite an effort at times for me to refrain from cutting them all short, and saying: “But, damn it all, who’s on trial in this court, I’d like to know? It’s a serious matter for a man, being accused of murder. And I’ve something really important to tell you.”
However, on second thoughts, I found I had nothing to say. In any case, I must admit that hearing oneself talked about loses its interest very soon. The Prosecutor’s speech, especially, began to bore me before he was halfway through it. The only things that really caught my attention were occasional phrases, his gestures, and some elaborate tirades—but these were isolated patches.
What he was aiming at, I gathered, was to show that my crime was premeditated. I remember his saying at one moment, “I can prove this, gentlemen of the jury, to the hilt. First, you have the facts of the crime; which are as clear as daylight. And then you have what I may call the night side of this case, the dark workings of a criminal mentality.”
He began by summing up the facts, from my mother’s death onward. He stressed my heartlessness, my inability to state Mother’s age, my visit to the swimming pool where I met Marie, our matinee at the pictures where a Fernandel film was showing, and finally my return with Marie to my rooms. I didn’t quite follow his remarks at first, as he kept on mentioning “the prisoner’s mistress,” whereas for me she was just “Marie.” Then he came to the subject of Raymond. It seemed to me that his way of treating the facts showed a certain shrewdness. All he said sounded quite plausible. I’d written the letter in collusion with Raymond so as to entice his mistress to his room and subject her to ill-treatment by a man “of more than dubious reputation.” Then, on the beach, I’d provoked a brawl with Raymond’s enemies, in the course of which Raymond was wounded. I’d asked him for his revolver and gone back by myself with the intention of using it. Then I’d shot the Arab. After the first shot I waited. Then, “to be certain of making a good job of it,” I fired four more shots deliberately, point-blank, and in cold blood, at my victim.
“That is my case,” he said. “I have described to you the series of events which led this man to kill the deceased, fully aware of what he was doing. I emphasize this point. We are not concerned with an act of homicide committed on a sudden impulse which might serve as extenuation. I ask you to note, gentlemen of the jury, that the prisoner is an educated man. You will have observed the way in which he answered my questions; he is intelligent and he knows the value of words. And I repeat that it is quite impossible to assume that, when he committed the crime, he was unaware what he was doing.”
I noticed that he laid stress on my “intelligence.” It puzzled me rather why what would count as a good point in an ordinary person should be used against an accused man as an overwhelming proof of his guilt. While thinking this over, I missed what he said next, until I heard him exclaim indignantly: “And has he uttered a word of regret for his most odious crime? Not one word, gentlemen. Not once in the course of these proceedings did this man show the least contrition.”
Turning toward the dock, he pointed a finger at me, and went on in the same strain. I really couldn’t understand why he harped on this point so much. Of course, I had to own that he was right; I didn’t feel much regret for what I’d done. Still, to my mind he overdid it, and I’d have liked to have a chance of explaining to him, in a quite friendly, almost affectionate way, that I have never been able really to regret anything in all my life. I’ve always been far too much absorbed in the present moment, or the immediate future, to think back. Of course, in the position into which I had been forced, there was no question of my speaking to anyone in that tone. I hadn’t the right to show any friendly feeling or possess good intentions. And I tried to follow what came next, as the Prosecutor was now considering what he called my “soul.”
He said he’d studied it closely—and had found a blank, “literally nothing, gentlemen of the jury.” Really, he said, I had no soul, there was nothing human about me, not one of those moral qualities which normal men possess had any place in my mentality. “No doubt,” he added, “we should not reproach him with this. We cannot blame a man for lacking what it was never in his power to acquire. But in a criminal court the wholly passive ideal of tolerance must give place to a sterner, loftier ideal, that of justice. Especially when this lack of every decent instinct is such as that of the man before you, a menace to society.” He proceeded to discuss my conduct toward my mother, repeating what he had said in the course of the hearing. But he spoke at much greater length of my crime—at such length, indeed, that I lost the thread and was conscious only of the steadily increasing heat.
A moment came when the Prosecutor paused and, after a short silence, said in a low, vibrant voice: “This same court, gentlemen, will be called on to try tomorrow that most odious of crimes, the murder of a father by his son.” To his mind, such a crime was almost unimaginable. But, he ventured to hope, justice would be meted out without paltering. And yet, he made bold to say, the horror that even the crime of parricide inspired in him paled beside the loathing inspired by my callousness.
“This man, who is morally guilty of his mother’s death, is no less unfit to have a place in the community than that other man who did to death the father that begat him. And, indeed, the one crime led on to the other; the first of these two criminals, the man in the dock, set a precedent, if I may put it so, and authorized the second crime. Yes, gentlemen, I am convinced”—here he raised his voice a tone—“that you will not find I am exaggerating the case against the prisoner when I say that he is also guilty of the murder to be tried tomorrow in this court. And I look to you for a verdict accordingly.”
The Prosecutor paused again, to wipe the sweat off his face. He then explained that his duty was a painful one, but he would do it without flinching. “This man has, I repeat, no place in a community whose basic principles he flouts without compunction. Nor, heartless as he is, has he any claim to mercy. I ask you to impose the extreme penalty of the law; and I ask it without a qualm. In the course of a long career, in which it has often been my duty to ask for a capital sentence, never have I felt that painful duty weigh so little on my mind as in the present case. In demanding a verdict of murder without extenuating circumstances, I am following not only the dictates of my conscience and a sacred obligation, but also those of the natural and righteous indignation I feel at the sight of a criminal devoid of the least spark of human feeling.”
When the Prosecutor sat down there was a longish silence. Personally I was quite overcome by the heat and my amazement at what I had been hearing. The presiding judge gave a short cough, and asked me in a very low tone if I had anything to say. I rose, and as I felt in the mood to speak, I said the first thing that crossed my mind: that I’d had no intention of killing the Arab. The Judge replied that this statement would be taken into consideration by the court. Meanwhile he would be glad to hear, before my counsel addressed the court, what were the motives of my crime. So far, he must admit, he hadn’t fully understood the grounds of my defense.
I tried to explain that it was because of the sun, but I spoke too quickly and ran my words into each other. I was only too conscious that it sounded nonsensical, and, in fact, I heard people tittering.
My lawyer shrugged his shoulders. Then he was directed to address the court, in his turn. But all he did was to point out the lateness of the hour and to ask for an adjournment till the following afternoon. To this the judge agreed.
When I was brought back next day, the electric fans were still churning up the heavy air and the jurymen plying their gaudy little fans in a sort of steady rhythm. The speech for the defense seemed to me interminable. At one moment, however, I pricked up my ears; it was when I heard him saying: “It is true I killed a man.” He went on in the same strain, saying “I” when he referred to me. It seemed so queer that I bent toward the policeman on my right and asked him to explain. He told me to shut up; then, after a moment, whispered: “They all do that.” It seemed to me that the idea behind it was still further to exclude me from the case, to put me off the map. so to speak, by substituting the lawyer for myself. Anyway, it hardly mattered; I already felt worlds away from this courtroom and its tedious “proceedings.”
My lawyer, in any case, struck me as feeble to the point of being ridiculous. He hurried through his plea of provocation, and then he, too, started in about my soul. But I had an impression that he had much less talent than the Prosecutor.
“I, too,” he said, “have closely studied this man’s soul; but, unlike my learned friend for the prosecution, I have found something there. Indeed, I may say that I have read the prisoner’s mind like an open book.” What he had read there was that I was an excellent young fellow, a steady, conscientious worker who did his best by his employer; that I was popular with everyone and sympathetic in others’ troubles. According to him I was a dutiful son, who had supported his mother as long as he was able. After anxious consideration I had reached the conclusion that, by entering a home, the old lady would have comforts that my means didn’t permit me to provide for her. “I am astounded, gentlemen,” he added, “by the attitude taken up by my learned friend in referring to this Home. Surely if proof be needed of the excellence of such institutions, we need only remember that they are promoted and financed by a government department.” I noticed that he made no reference to the funeral, and this seemed to me a serious omission. But, what with his long-windedness, the endless days and hours they had been discussing my “soul,” and the rest of it, I found that my mind had gone blurred; everything was dissolving into a grayish, watery haze.
Only one incident stands out; toward the end, while my counsel rambled on, I heard the tin trumpet of an ice-cream vendor in the street, a small, shrill sound cutting across the flow of words. And then a rush of memories went through my mind—memories of a life which was mine no longer and had once provided me with the surest, humblest pleasures: warm smells of summer, my favorite streets, the sky at evening, Marie’s dresses and her laugh. The futility of what was happening here seemed to take me by the throat, I felt like vomiting, and I had only one idea: to get it over, to go back to my cell, and sleep ... and sleep.
Dimly I heard my counsel making his last appeal.
“Gentlemen of the jury, surely you will not send to his death a decent, hard-working young man, because for one tragic moment he lost his self-control? Is he not sufficiently punished by the lifelong remorse that is to be his lot? I confidently await your verdict, the only verdict possible—that of homicide with extenuating circumstances.”
The court rose, and the lawyer sat down, looking thoroughly exhausted. Some of his colleagues came to him and shook his hand. “You put up a magnificent show, old man,” I heard one of them say. Another lawyer even called me to witness: “Fine, wasn’t it?” I agreed, but insincerely; I was far too tired to judge if it had been “fine” or otherwise.
Meanwhile the day was ending and the heat becoming less intense. By some vague sounds that reached me from the street I knew that the cool of the evening had set in. We all sat on, waiting. And what we all were waiting for really concerned nobody but me. I looked round the courtroom. It was exactly as it had been on the first day. I met the eyes of the journalist in gray and the robot woman. This reminded me that not once during the whole hearing had I tried to catch Marie’s eye. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten her; only I was too preoccupied. I saw her now, seated between Céleste and Raymond. She gave me a little wave of her hand, as if to say, “At last!” She was smiling, but I could tell that she was rather anxious. But my heart seemed turned to stone, and I couldn’t even return her smile.
The judges came back to their seats. Someone read out to the jury, very rapidly, a string of questions. I caught a word here and there. “Murder of malice aforethought ... Provocation ... Extenuating circumstances.” The jury went out, and I was taken to the little room where I had already waited. My lawyer came to see me; he was very talkative and showed more cordiality and confidence than ever before. He assured me that all would go well and I’d get off with a few years’ imprisonment or transportation. I asked him what were the chances of getting the sentence quashed. He said there was no chance of that. He had not raised any point of law, as this was apt to prejudice the jury. And it was difficult to get a judgment quashed except on technical grounds. I saw his point, and agreed. Looking at the matter dispassionately, I shared his view. Otherwise there would be no end to litigation. “In any case,” the lawyer said, “you can appeal in the ordinary way. But I’m convinced the verdict will be favorable.”
We waited for quite a while, a good three quarters of an hour, I should say. Then a bell rang. My lawyer left me, saying:
“The foreman of the jury will read out the answers. You will be called on after that to hear the judgment.”
Some doors banged. I heard people hurrying down flights of steps, but couldn’t tell whether they were near by or distant. Then I heard a voice droning away in the courtroom.
When the bell rang again and I stepped back into the dock, the silence of the courtroom closed in round me, and with the silence came a queer sensation when I noticed that, for the. first time, the young journalist kept his eyes averted. I didn’t look in Marie’s direction. In fact, I had no time to look, as the presiding judge had already started pronouncing a rigmarole to the effect that “in the name of the French people” I was to be decapitated in some public place.
It seemed to me then that I could interpret the look on the faces of those present; it was one of almost respectful sympathy. The policemen, too, handled me very gently. The lawyer placed his hand on my wrist. I had stopped thinking altogether. I heard the Judge’s voice asking if I had anything more to say. After thinking for a moment, I answered, “No.” Then the policemen led me out.