On the whole I can’t say that those months passed slowly; another summer was on its way almost before I realized the first was over. And I knew that with the first really hot days something new was in store for me. My case was down for the last sessions of the Assize Court, and those sessions were due to end some time in June.
The day on which my trial started was one of brilliant sunshine. My lawyer assured me the case would take only two or three days. “From what I hear,” he added, “the court will dispatch your case as quickly as possible, as it isn’t the most important one on the Cause List. There’s a case of parricide immediately after, which will take them some time.”
They came for me at half-past seven in the morning and I was conveyed to the law courts in a prison van. The two policemen led me into a small room that smelled of darkness. We sat near a door through which came sounds of voices, shouts, chairs scraping on the floor; a vague hubbub which reminded me of one of those small- town “socials” when, after the concert’s over, the hall is cleared for dancing.
One of my policemen told me the judges hadn’t arrived yet, and offered me a cigarette, which I declined. After a bit he asked me if I was feeling nervous. I said, “No,” and that the prospect of witnessing a trial rather interested me; I’d never had occasion to attend one before.
“Maybe,” the other policeman said. “But after an hour or two one’s had enough of it.”
After a while a small electric bell purred in the room. They unfastened my handcuffs, opened the door, and led me to the prisoner’s dock.
There was a great crowd in the courtroom. Though the Venetian blinds were down, light was filtering through the chinks, and the air stiflingly hot already. The windows had been kept shut. I sat down, and the police officers took their stand on each side of my chair.
It was then that I noticed a row of faces opposite me. These people were staring hard at me, and I guessed they were the jury. But somehow I didn’t see them as individuals. I felt as you do just after boarding a streetcar and you’re conscious of all the people on the opposite seat staring at you in the hope of finding something in your appearance to amuse them. Of course, I knew this was an absurd comparison; what these people were looking for in me wasn’t anything to laugh at, but signs of criminality. Still, the difference wasn’t so very great, and, anyhow, that’s the idea I got.
What with the crowd and the stuffiness of the air I was feeling a bit dizzy. I ran my eyes round the courtroom but couldn’t recognize any of the faces. At first I could hardly believe that all these people had come on my account. It was such a new experience, being a focus of interest; in the ordinary way no one ever paid much attention to me.
“What a crush!” I remarked to the policeman on my left, and he explained that the newspapers were responsible for it.
He pointed to a group of men at a table just below the jury box. “There they are!”
“Who?” I asked, and he replied, “The press.” One of them, he added, was an old friend of his.
A moment later the man he’d mentioned looked our way and, coming to the dock, shook hands warmly with the policeman. The journalist was an elderly man with a rather grim expression, but his manner was quite pleasant. Just then I noticed that almost all the people in the courtroom were greeting each other, exchanging remarks and forming groups—behaving, in fact, as in a club where the company of others of one’s own tastes and standing makes one feel at ease. That, no doubt, explained the odd impression I had of being de trop here, a sort of gate-crasher.
However, the journalist addressed me quite amiably, and said he hoped all would go well for me. I thanked him, and he added with a smile:
“You know, we’ve been featuring you a bit. We’re always rather short of copy in the summer, and there’s been precious little to write about except your case and the one that’s coming on after it. I expect you’ve heard about it; it’s a case of parricide.”
He drew my attention to one of the group at the press table, a plump, small man with huge black-rimmed glasses, who made me think of an overfed weasel.
“That fellow’s the special correspondent of one of the Paris dailies. As a matter of fact, he didn’t come on your account. He was sent for the parricide case, but they’ve asked him to cover yours as well.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to say, “That was very kind of them,” but then I thought it would sound silly. With a friendly wave of his hand he left us, and for some minutes nothing happened.
Then, accompanied by some colleagues, my lawyer bustled in, in his gown. He went up to the press table and shook hands with the journalists. They remained laughing and chatting together, all seemingly very much at home here, until a bell rang shrilly and everyone went to his place. My lawyer came up to me, shook hands, and advised me to answer all the questions as briefly as possible, not to volunteer information, and to rely on him to see me through.
I heard a chair scrape on my left, and a tall, thin man wearing pince-nez settled the folds of his red gown as he took his seat. The Public Prosecutor, I gathered. A clerk of the court announced that Their Honors were entering, and at the same moment two big electric fans started buzzing overhead. Three judges, two in black and the third in scarlet, with brief cases under their arms, entered and walked briskly to the bench, which was several feet above the level of the courtroom floor. The man in scarlet took the central, high-backed chair, placed his cap of office on the table, ran a handkerchief over his small bald crown, and announced that the hearing would now begin.
The journalists had their fountain pens ready; they all wore the same expression of slightly ironical indifference, with the exception of one, a much younger man than his colleagues, in gray flannels with a blue tie, who, leaving his pen on the table, was gazing hard at me. He had a plain, rather chunky face; what held my attention were his eyes, very pale, clear eyes, riveted on me, though not betraying any definite emotion. For a moment I had an odd impression, as if I were being scrutinized by myself. That—and the fact that I was unfamiliar with court procedure—may explain why I didn’t follow very well the opening phases: the drawing of lots for the jury, the various questions put by the presiding judge to the Prosecutor, the foreman of the jury, and my counsel (each time he spoke all the jurymen’s heads swung round together toward the bench), the hurried reading of the charge sheet, in the course of which I recognized some familiar names of people and places; then some supplementary questions put to my lawyer.
Next, the Judge announced that the court would call over the witness list. Some of the names read out by the clerk rather surprised me. From amongst the crowd, which until now I had seen as a mere blur of faces, rose, one after the other, Raymond, Masson, Salamano, the doorkeeper from the Home, old Pérez, and Marie, who gave me a little nervous wave of her hand before following the others out by a side door. I was thinking how strange it was I hadn’t noticed any of them before when I heard the last name called, that of Céleste. As he rose, I noticed beside him the quaint little woman with a mannish coat and brisk, decided air, who had shared my table at the restaurant. She had her eyes fixed on me, I noticed. But I hadn’t time to wonder about her; the Judge had started speaking again.
He said that the trial proper was about to begin, and he need hardly say that he expected the public to refrain from any demonstration whatsoever. He explained that he was there to supervise the proceedings, as a sort of umpire, and he would take a scrupulously impartial view of the case. The verdict of the jury would be interpreted by him in a spirit of justice. Finally, at the least sign of a disturbance he would have the court cleared.
The day was stoking up. Some of the public were fanning themselves with newspapers, and there was a constant rustle of crumpled paper. On a sign from the presiding judge the clerk of the court brought three fans of plaited straw, which the three judges promptly put in action.
My examination began at once. The Judge questioned me quite calmly and even, I thought, with a hint of cordiality. For the nth time I was asked to give particulars of my identity and, though heartily sick of this formality, I realized that it was natural enough; after all, it would be a shocking thing for the court to be trying the wrong man.
The Judge then launched into an account of what I’d done, stopping after every two or three sentences to ask me, “Is that correct?” To which I always replied, “Yes, sir,” as my lawyer had advised me. It was a long business, as the Judge lingered on each detail. Meanwhile the journalists scribbled busily away. But I was sometimes conscious of the eyes of the youngest fixed on me; also those of the queer little robot woman. The jurymen, however, were all gazing at the red-robed judge, and I was again reminded of the row of passengers on one side of a tram. Presently he gave a slight cough, turned some pages of his file, and, still fanning his face, addressed me gravely.
He now proposed, he said, to trench on certain matters which, on a superficial view, might seem foreign to the case, but actually were highly relevant. I guessed that he was going to talk about Mother, and at the same moment realized how odious I would find this. His first question was: Why had I sent my mother to an institution? I replied that the reason was simple; I hadn’t enough money to see that she was properly looked after at home. Then he asked if the parting hadn’t caused me distress. I explained that neither Mother nor I expected much of one another—or, for that matter, of anybody else; so both of us had got used to the new conditions easily enough. The Judge then said that he had no wish to press the point, and asked the Prosecutor if he could think of any more questions that should be put to me at this stage.
The Prosecutor, who had his back half turned to me, said, without looking in my direction, that, subject to His Honor’s approval, he would like to know if I’d gone back to the stream with the intention of killing the Arab. I said, “No.” In that case, why had I taken a revolver with me, and why go back precisely to that spot? I said it was a matter of pure chance. The Prosecutor then observed in a nasty tone: “Very good. That will be all for the present.”
I couldn’t quite follow what came next. Anyhow, after some palavering among the bench, the Prosecutor, and my counsel, the presiding judge announced that the court would now rise; there was an adjournment till the afternoon, when evidence would be taken.
Almost before I knew what was happening I was rushed out to the prison van, which drove me back, and I was given my midday meal. After a short time, just enough for me to realize how tired I was feeling, they came for me. I was back in the same room, confronting the same faces, and the whole thing started again. But the heat had meanwhile much increased, and by some miracle fans had been procured for everyone: the jury, my lawyer, the Prosecutor, and some of the journalists, too. The young man and the robot woman were still at their places. But they were not fanning themselves and, as before, they never took their eyes off me.
I wiped the sweat from my face, but I was barely conscious of where or who I was until I heard the warden of the Home called to the witness box. When asked if my mother had complained about my conduct, he said, “Yes,” but that didn’t mean much; almost all the inmates of the Home had grievances against their relatives. The Judge asked him to be more explicit; did she reproach me with having sent her to the Home, and he said, “Yes,” again. But this time he didn’t qualify his answer.
To another question he replied that on the day of the funeral he was somewhat surprised by my calmness. Asked to explain what he meant by “my calmness,” the warden lowered his eyes and stared at his shoes for a moment. Then he explained that I hadn’t wanted to see Mother’s body, or shed a single tear, and that I’d left immediately the funeral ended, without lingering at her grave. Another thing had surprised him. One of the undertaker’s men told him that I didn’t know my mother’s age. There was a short silence; then the Judge asked him if he might take it that he was referring to the prisoner in the dock. The warden seemed puzzled by this, and the Judge explained: “It’s a formal question. I am bound to put it.”
The Prosecutor was then asked if he had any questions to put, and he answered loudly: “Certainly not! I have all I want.” His tone and the look of triumph on his face, as he glanced at me, were so marked that I felt as I hadn’t felt for ages. I had a foolish desire to burst into tears. For the first time I’d realized how all these people loathed me.
After asking the jury and my lawyer if they had any questions, the Judge heard the doorkeeper’s evidence. On stepping into the box the man threw a glance at me, then looked away. Replying to questions, he said that I’d declined to see Mother’s body, I’d smoked cigarettes and slept, and drunk café au lait. It was then I felt a sort of wave of indignation spreading through the courtroom, and for the first time I understood that I was guilty. They got the doorkeeper to repeat what he had said about the coffee and my smoking.
The Prosecutor turned to me again, with a gloating look in his eyes. My counsel asked the doorkeeper if he, too, hadn’t smoked. But the Prosecutor took strong exception to this. “I’d like to know,” he cried indignantly, “who is on trial in this court. Or does my friend think that by aspersing a witness for the prosecution he will shake the evidence, the abundant and cogent evidence, against his client?” None the less, the Judge told the doorkeeper to answer the question.
The old fellow fidgeted a bit. Then, “Well, I know I didn’t ought to have done it,” he mumbled, “but I did take a cigarette from the young gentleman when he offered it—just out of politeness.”
The Judge asked me if I had any comment to make. “None,” I said, “except that the witness is quite right. It’s true I offered him a cigarette.”
The doorkeeper looked at me with surprise and a sort of gratitude. Then, after hemming and hawing for a bit, he volunteered the statement that it was he who’d suggested I should have some coffee.
My lawyer was exultant. “The jury will appreciate,” he said, “the importance of this admission.”
The Prosecutor, however, was promptly on his feet again. “Quite so,” he boomed above our heads. “The jury will appreciate it. And they will draw the conclusion that, though a third party might inadvertently offer him a cup of coffee, the prisoner, in common decency, should have refused it, if only out of respect for the dead body of the poor woman who had brought him into the world.”
After which the doorkeeper went back to his seat.
When Thomas Pérez was called, a court officer had. to help him to the box. Pérez stated that, though he had been a great friend of my mother, he had met me once only, on the day of the funeral. Asked how I had behaved that day, he said:
“Well, I was most upset, you know. Far too much upset to notice things. My grief sort of blinded me, I think. It had been a great shock, my dear friend’s death; in fact, I fainted during the funeral. So I didn’t hardly notice the young gentleman at all.”
The Prosecutor asked him to tell the court if he’d seen me weep. And when Pérez answered, “No,” added emphatically: “I trust the jury will take note of this reply.”
My lawyer rose at once, and asked Pérez in a tone that seemed to me needlessly aggressive:
“Now, think well, my man! Can you swear you saw he didn’t shed a tear?”
Pérez answered, “No.”
At this some people tittered, and my lawyer, pushing back one sleeve of his gown, said sternly:
“That is typical of the way this case is being conducted. No attempt is being made to elicit the true facts.”
The Prosecutor ignored this remark; he was making dabs with his pencil on the cover of his brief, seemingly quite indifferent.
There was a break of five minutes, during which my lawyer told me the case was going very well indeed. Then Céleste was called. He was announced as a witness for the defense. The defense meant me.
Now and again Céleste threw me a glance; he kept squeezing his Panama hat between his hands as he gave evidence. He was in his best suit, the one he wore when sometimes of a Sunday he went with me to the races. But evidently he hadn’t been able to get his collar on; the top of his shirt, I noticed, was secured only by a brass stud. Asked if I was one of his customers, he said, “Yes, and a friend as well.” Asked to state his opinion of me, he said that I was “all right” and, when told to explain what he meant by that, he replied that everyone knew what that meant. “Was I a secretive sort of man?” “No,” he answered, “I shouldn’t call him that. But he isn’t one to waste his breath, like a lot of folks.”
The Prosecutor asked him if I always settled my monthly bill at his restaurant when he presented it. Céleste laughed. “Oh, he paid on the nail, all right. But the bills were just details-like, between him and me.” Then he was asked to say what he thought about the crime. He placed his hands on the rail of the box and one could see he had a speech all ready.
“To my mind it was just an accident, or a stroke of bad luck, if you prefer. And a thing like that takes you off your guard.”
He wanted to continue, but the Judge cut him short. “Quite so. That’s all, thank you.”
For a bit Céleste seemed flabbergasted; then he explained that he hadn’t finished what he wanted to say. They told him to continue, but to make it brief.
He only repeated that it was “just an accident.”
“That’s as it may be,” the Judge observed. “But what we are here for is to try such accidents, according to law. You can stand down.”
Céleste turned and gazed at me. His eyes were moist and his lips trembling. It was exactly as if he’d said: “Well, I’ve done my best for you, old man. I’m afraid it hasn’t helped much. I’m sorry.”
I didn’t say anything, or make any movement, but for the first time in my life I wanted to kiss a man.
The Judge repeated his order to stand down, and Céleste returned to his place amongst the crowd. During the rest of the hearing he remained there, leaning forward, elbows on knees and his Panama between his hands, not missing a word of the proceedings.
It was Marie’s turn next. She had a hat on and still looked quite pretty, though I much preferred her with her hair free. From where I was I had glimpses of the soft curve of her breasts, and her underlip had the little pout that always fascinated me. She appeared very nervous.
The first question was: How long had she known me? Since the time when she was in our office, she replied. Then the Judge asked her what were the relations between us, and she said she was my girl friend. Answering another question, she admitted promising to marry me. The Prosecutor, who had been studying a doc*ment in front of him, asked her rather sharply when our “liaison” had begun. She gave the date. He then observed with a would-be casual air that apparently she meant the day following my mother’s funeral. After letting this sink in he remarked in a slightly ironic tone that obviously this was a “delicate topic” and he could enter into the young lady’s feelings, but—and here his voice grew sterner—his duty obliged him to waive considerations of delicacy.
After making this announcement he asked Marie to give a full account of our doings on the day when I had “intercourse” with her for the first time. Marie wouldn’t answer at first, but the Prosecutor insisted, and then she told him that we had met at the baths, gone together to the pictures, and then to my place. He then informed the court that, as a result of certain statements made by Marie at the proceedings before the magistrate, he had studied the movie programs of that date, and turning to Marie asked her to name the film that we had gone to see. In a very low voice she said it was a picture with Fernandel in it. By the time she had finished, the courtroom was so still you could have heard a pin drop.
Looking very grave, the Prosecutor drew himself up to his full height and, pointing at me, said in such a tone that I could have sworn he was genuinely moved:
“Gentlemen of the jury, I would have you note that on the next day after his mother’s funeral that man was visiting the swimming pool, starting a liaison with a girl, and going to see a comic film. That is all I wish to say.”
When he sat down there was the same dead silence. Then all of a sudden Marie burst into tears. He’d got it all wrong, she said; it wasn’t a bit like that really, he’d bullied her into saying the opposite of what she meant. She knew me very well, and she was sure I hadn’t done anything really wrong—and so on. At a sign from the presiding judge, one of the court officers led her away, and the hearing continued.
Hardly anyone seemed to listen to Masson, the next witness. He stated that I was a respectable young fellow; “and, what’s more, a very decent chap.” Nor did they pay any more attention to Salamano, when he told them how kind I’d always been to his dog, or when, in answer to a question about my mother and myself, he said that Mother and I had very little in common and that explained why I’d fixed up for her to enter the Home. “You’ve got to understand,” he added. “You’ve got to understand.” But no one seemed to understand. He was told to stand down.
Raymond was the next, and last, witness. He gave me a little wave of his hand and led off by saying I was innocent. The Judge rebuked him.
“You are here to give evidence, not your views on the case, and you must confine yourself to answering the questions put you.”
He was then asked to make clear his relations with the deceased, and Raymond took this opportunity of explaining that it was he, not I, against whom the dead man had a grudge, because he, Raymond, had beaten up his sister. The judge asked him if the deceased had no reason to dislike me, too. Raymond told him that my presence on the beach that morning was a pure coincidence.
“How comes it then,” the Prosecutor inquired, “that the letter which led up to this tragedy was the prisoner’s work?”
Raymond replied that this, too, was due to mere chance.
To which the Prosecutor retorted that in this case “chance” or “mere coincidence” seemed to play a remarkably large part. Was it by chance that I hadn’t intervened when Raymond assaulted his mistress? Did this convenient term “chance” account for my having vouched for Raymond at the police station and having made, on that occasion, statements extravagantly favorable to him? In conclusion he asked Raymond to state what were his means of livelihood.
On his describing himself as a warehouseman, the Prosecutor informed the jury it was common knowledge that the witness lived on the immoral earnings of women. I, he said, was this man’s intimate friend and associate; in fact, the whole background of the crime was of the most squalid description. And what made it even more odious was the personality of the prisoner, an inhuman monster wholly without a moral sense.
Raymond began to expostulate, and my lawyer, too, protested. They were told that the Prosecutor must be allowed to finish his remarks.
“I have nearly done,” he said; then turned to Raymond. “Was the prisoner your friend?”
“Certainly. We were the best of pals, as they say.”
The Prosecutor then put me the same question. I looked hard at Raymond, and he did not turn away.
Then, “Yes,” I answered.
The Prosecutor turned toward the jury.
“Not only did the man before you in the dock indulge in the most shameful orgies on the day following his mother’s death. He killed a man cold-bloodedly, in pursuance of some sordid vendetta in the underworld of prostitutes and pimps. That, gentlemen of the jury, is the type of man the prisoner is.”
No sooner had he sat down than my lawyer, out of all patience, raised his arms so high that his sleeves fell back, showing the full length of his starched shirt cuffs.
“Is my client on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man?” he asked.
There were some titters in court. But then the Prosecutor sprang to his feet and, draping his gown round him, said he was amazed at his friend’s ingenuousness in failing to see that between these two elements of the case there was a vital link. They hung together psychologically, if he might put it so. “In short,” he concluded, speaking with great vehemence, “I accuse the prisoner of behaving at his mother’s funeral in a way that showed he was already a criminal at heart.”
These words seemed to take much effect on the jury and public. My lawyer merely shrugged his shoulders and wiped the sweat from his forehead. But obviously he was rattled, and I had a feeling things weren’t going well for me.
Soon after this incident the court rose. As I was being taken from the courthouse to the prison van, I was conscious for a few brief moments of the once familiar feel of a summer evening out-of-doors. And, sitting in the darkness of my moving cell, I recognized, echoing in my tired brain, all the characteristic sounds of a town I’d loved, and of a certain hour of the day which I had always particularly enjoyed. The shouts of newspaper boys in the already languid air, the last calls of birds in the public garden, the cries of sandwich vendors, the screech of streetcars at the steep corners of the upper town, and that faint rustling overhead as darkness sifted down upon the harbor—all these sounds made my return to prison like a blind man’s journey along a route whose every inch he knows by heart.
Yes, this was the evening hour when—how long ago it seemed!—I always felt so well content with life. Then, what awaited me was a night of easy, dreamless sleep. This was the same hour, but with a difference; I was returning to a cell, and what awaited me was a night haunted by forebodings of the coming day. And so I learned that familiar paths traced in the dusk of summer evenings may lead as well to prisons as to innocent, untroubled sleep.