The Stranger

   As Jean was going to get off at the station at C... a stranger got into his compartment, Jean asked him if he should get off there in order to arrive at B... before nightfall. The Stranger replied that he would not be able to get there the same evening now and it would be better to go to B... where there was a good inn. Jean followed his advice and when they arrived at the station at C... the Stranger had a station porter take off the luggage for C..., urged the innkeeper to find a good room for him and wrote a letter on his behalf to the manager of the hotel in B... where he could easily go the next day.1
   And already in the carriage as they were chatting together they seemed as close to one another as a son chatting with his father. Anybody coming across them would have assumed them to be two friends who would have treated him as the stranger, as if they had known each other a considerable time. So many men in reality are similar in outlook to one another, often at the very first introduction, both of them recognizing something of themselves in the other. So too is a sincere, animated and friendly conversation with a fellow traveller the same as with my coachman who while going uphill jumps down and walks alongside the vehicle, with the barmaid of an inn that I will never revisit, if the warmness of my welcome, the tired and frozen look of my face, and perhaps the honest hope of a tip had aroused in her on my behalf the best of intentions, as she would be in a different part of the country with a friend of ten years' standing. Hence it is that with a college friend, a travelling companion, a regimental comrade, a companion in arms, a colleague, a valet, a brother, our common humanity very quickly establishes relationships whose inconsistency is proof of their genuinely human nature since with all other men they are re-established just as easily, the only deep-rooted plant that grows in every zone, in the desert, at sea, at the poles, in a brilliantly lit dining-room, where two neighbours who are talking together become for that moment two friends, everywhere where two human beings meet who are desirous of sharing their humanity.
   No sooner had Jean's things been dropped off at the inn, his newly met friend suggested that he come with him to a tavern where they were in the habit of playing cards every evening. They went outdoors, scarcely able to stand up against the rain and the wind off the sea that was blowing with all its might at the end of the streets, and where the roaring of the sea could be heard at the top. At the corner of one of these streets they reached the little bar, where the waiters and the owner amicably received the Stranger and were all attention towards Jean as he was one of his friends. A few men who spent their whole life in this badly lit room were drinking at the bar. At the door an elegant carriage was waiting. Because Compte de T..., a young man of immense fortune, whose ch√Ęteau dominated over the sea and the mouth of the Seine, who lived one league away, and spent the winter here, since arriving there that morning, lunched there, stayed the whole day, dined there and stayed until midnight, returning at night with his dog cart. He spent his time drinking, playing cards with the innkeeper - a man of sixty with a sharp eye - because their mistresses were intimate friends, not to put too fine a point on it, as they say. This young count was extremely handsome and behaved with a studied elegance, even though he exclusively frequented society more vulgar than the owner of the establishment. But his conversation was no different from theirs, although held in a tone of disdain and, cards in his hand or glass at his mouth, more often than not slipping into a sad, haughty and reserved silence. Furthermore his excessive propensity for alcoholic drinks gave him a sickly pallor that nevertheless went quite well with his artfully curled fine black head of hair beneath his elegant straw boater.
   The stranger did not greet him when he went in. It was clear that they knew each other but that the stranger, with a fortune and a position inferior to his, but judging himself just as good as he was, was avoiding saying anything that might have passed for deference, and irritated at the preponderant position that T... had there, was trying to indicate the superiority he would have liked to have had over him by his insolence. Quite evidently the first few times the waiter said respectfully "Monsieur de T... is over there" the Stranger made it seem he had not heard him or rather he pretended to go in as if entering into disreputable company of his own accord. But all that had died down, the waiters' respect for the count having dissipated through their drinking with him, playing cards with him and replying to him with insults when he was not there. And yet they were less scandalized by his violence than by his familiarity and thought it untoward that a count with such a fortune should spend his life with bar waiters like them. And sometimes when chatting to a new friend they lamented the waste of such a fine youth, because vice excites blame in all human hearts, even in those whose job it is to serve such men and who however low they might have fallen, still communicated at the very least in the kind of language of noble human sentiment.
   The Stranger and Jean took off their overcoats that the waiter took away to be dried out, the Stranger having particularly requested that they dried Jean's out thoroughly. And they went to sit down at a table where the Stranger's mistress, two of his friends, and an elderly actor were waiting for the Stranger as they played. They all took up their cards, and, from the first tricks, Jean made clear his desire to please by having displayed his disinterest in making the others lose, his scruples about winning, his thoughtfulness for all present, his considerateness and his kindness, characteristics that excited in the Stranger's mistress, a pretty young woman who was playing very earnestly, much sympathy and hilarity. She kept saying: "he's marvellous this fellow, he doesn't want to lose", and twisted around; she told him: "Let's play as partners my dear, and I'll stop you getting fleeced because you don't know the game, and you're going to lose everything you've got." She turned her attention to the vulgar old actor, he said some things that were so indecent that she appeared shocked although not through modesty, but tin her refinement and held her head up with an expression of nobility. Then an argument started up between them. The Stranger turned on his mistress with some violence. Meanwhile Jean noticed that the Stranger was emptying his second successive bottle of port, and from the one or two questions that his mistress asked him about what he had had to drink during the day Jean understood that he drank ten a day and that in spite of his twenty five years he was already a complete alcoholic.
   An itinerant conjuror came in. He was in morning dress and picked up just a few sous. The polished form of his overtures, his melancholy and yet in spite of everything dignified air, gave the impression that it was only after some terrible reversals of fortune that he had been forced to descend so low. And at home his fine figure was forced to stoop sadly over the little children that he was having difficulty feeding and were already starting to resemble him, albeit loved with a love much fiercer that that which he kept for himself. The Stranger who did not know him tried surreptitiously to break one of his shabby props. And the other having asked for a helper to tie his arms, the Stranger bound them so tightly that the poor man turned pale and in a trembling and indignant voice said "not so hard, not so hard", but the other smiling with his pretty feminine face, his blue eyes, his cruel mouth, tied them even tighter, so tight that he began to draw blood. Jean looked upon this scene with his heart pounding, not daring to disown his friend, yet believing in his heart that the conjurer would not think him capable of the same cruelty. And he tried to convince himself that the conjuror was not as badly hurt as he seemed. The latter barely able to choke back the tears, untied the knot, as if it were part of the act, leaving the Stranger quite astonished and his strength unequal to such dexterity. And with contained fury and real spirit the conjuror tried to ridicule the Stranger to the onlookers and to arouse at his expense a cheerfulness that never came. Shortly afterwards the party resumed their game of cards, but every now and then the conjuror cast a look of hatred at the group; then putting his jacket back on the conjurer joined in the game and with a malicious and careless expression the Stranger said: "He's already lost the twelve sous he's earned!" If the Stranger really were an alcoholic he showed no sign of any agitation.
   The owner of the establishment came to show him a motor car he was buying and asked him if it were a good one. The Stranger told him it wasn't and instead drew him a machine he had just invented, because not working at any profession, he put to use his extraordinary scientific gifts by inventing machines.
   Somebody asked him to perform one or two feats of strength, because he was unprecedentedly strong. But coming up to Jean with all the gentleness one has for a person one has a fellow-feeling for and the respect that even the most violent person still has for a stranger, he asked him if he would not find it tiresome, and then he lifted the owner of the establishment and his mistress into the air, by a chain in his teeth, he then jumped over six chairs stacked one on top of another. But after that he clutched his heart. "As a matter of fact", he said, "I have a heart condition that causes me terrible suffering. At times it makes me sad even to think I could die just like that."
   Just as they were leaving the bar the Stranger's mistress wanted everybody to come back in the Comte de T...'s dog cart, who tonight was on the best of terms with the Stranger. But the Stranger fearing that Jean who appeared to be delicate would be cold and would not want to, and as everybody else was leaving by carriage, he alone went on foot so as not to leave Jean to come back all on his own.
   Returning to the inn around midnight the Stranger smashed several shop windows. "There are quite a few complaints against me lodged with the superintendent of police", he laughed, "but I am so strong nobody dare..." And the next day he got up very early in the morning to accompany Jean to the station.
   Jean subtly tried to persuade him that he should not drink so much and take more care over his heart condition, for which those kinds of displays of strength could not be good, - thinking that if anything could possibly change people it would be our mutual understanding. That would have taken the sort of influence over character that Jean simply did not possess. The Stranger's friend, an honest, sensible and neat young man, came along too. And whilst the Stranger was gone to load up Jean's luggage, Jean chatted for a few moments with his friend about the Stranger, the Stranger having become for an instant an object of scrutiny, that one might judge, whereas in the presence of another we are so to speak the same, he seems to us the measure of all, by the simple fact that we are talking to him, our words implying our communion. And the friend declared that the Stranger was the best of friends, but people feared that he might well go mad. When asked about the incident with the conjuror it did not surprise him, saying that the Stranger was not at all thoughtful or charitable. "Yet", he said, "he has a good heart."
   The Stranger came back, and soon Jean had left that little town to which he would never return, but where in all likelihood he had left a pleasant memory in the mind of the Stranger's mistress albeit probably not thought about once in a year.
   But this woman certainly had a perception of Jean's qualities, even if she could not put a name to it, one that was just as lively, just as equitable as the people he was closest to, who no doubt were less aware of his generosity, his need to be liked, his profound good-will that were more difficult to interpret in the life of society, that in that room or among strangers, a Stranger himself, at that sordid table and playing at cards, he could not help but diffuse like some flickering light his cordiality along with his weakness.
   And indeed so it is that our life is not all grouped together in the same place and as is the case for painters whose works are dispersed across different museums, whose favorite painting perhaps takes pride of place in a middle-class drawing-room in Amsterdam or Vienna, some memory of our existence, some portrait of our character dwells in the house of a fisherman, in the memory of a waiter at an inn where it would be quite extraordinary for us to go and discover it. Yet it is there. It truly is me myself that she knew and my own existence. And if I were to die and she to hear about it no doubt without it being able to project any genuine sadness into her life from which I was too detached, which did not require my death to detach me (which in any case would be quite sufficient to do) no doubt she would talk about me respectfully, occasionally recalling old memories. It is extremely rare that those who die, great men who have often chatted to their innkeeper while on holiday in the country, good middle-class men who will stop and spend the evening chatting with their newspaper vendor, do not in this way leave behind a pleasant memory of themselves with some folk who have indeed known something of their real selves and in whom the sorrowful and covetous affection of a mother, of a weeping son, come to seek consolation, by asking them about the everyday habits of those they have lost, by undeniably establishing the void that they have left behind. No doubt they would have been wrong to believe that the death of a beloved child over whom they are mourning is a genuine grief for that old woman from the neighbourhood who admired him when he went by and upon whose wretched threshold he proudly placed his buff booted feet surmounted by little velvet breeches when she called him over to give him an apple and his governess or his mother said: "go and say thank-you to the lady", so as to encourage him not to be haughty. No doubt the old woman selling newspapers who chatted with your mother when she was taking her newspapers and who gives you so much pleasure when she tells you "she was so good", and "how put out she was when the republicans were elected", and "everyone in the neighbourhood loved her, we will all miss her", no doubt that old woman selling newspapers while having said sadly "that poor Madame so-and-so has left us. Such a loss for the neighbourhood" and adding some comments that you would find disagreeable: "Married for two years she really went down hill, she changed, nobody recognized her any more", accompanied by this remark that caused even more pain: "and yet she came all the way by foot as if there were no carriages the day her son came back. Ah, my lady, how she loved her son, had to know about it when anybody mentioned him. I really think she would have had herself chopped up into pieces to spare him any discomfort." No doubt this old newspaper seller would not take any less pleasure seeing a piping hot dinner brought to her kiosk and to retreat to the back to gulp it down in a seclusion that to her was as profound and as comfortable as her dining-room is to a lady of wealth, her mind not being any the less occupied with the various interests of her life, from the lateness of the hawker who brings Le Temps, the repair work she has to do for the woman who sells umbrellas, of her sorrows, and of the pleasure she feels when she is not suffering the hot sun on her shoulders through her shawl. You may be sure that, you mother being lost to the people who occupy the stage of her daily life, will not be missed by them, because we continue to eat with just as much pleasure at a table that has lost one of its legs while from time to time lamenting that it is missing. But this resumption of day to day life does not prevent sympathetic memories remaining vividly painted in sincere remembrances. No doubt their children will perhaps never know the name of this lady whom their mother loved so much, who was good to her and who is honoured by her grieving family who come to learn something more about their deceased, just as a wealthy amateur goes to poor districts, climbs a rickety staircase in a shabby old house where he knows that the ceiling is by La Tour. The children would reply: "We don't know. My mother would know." But is it not enough to leave our honoured and dear memory to various members of our generation, not being sufficiently aspiring to ask that this memory succeeds to the next generation. We are human beings and we cannot hope for more than to arouse in others feelings of genuine humanity. If alas the circumstances of our life can change without affecting our vices, our good qualities too spread themselves around in the same way, like the flowers of a plant that to it are all alike and that depend on its life and not on the soil in which it was planted. Just as in distant regions where some Parisian establishes his life of adventure for a moment, it is those qualities, the smile that were familiar and dear to his mother that he brings with him and that are beloved to him.
   Thus in the little town where it seems that Ruskin came for six months to study a cathedral, the things he said to the church beadle, who was showing me around it at that moment and who had preserved the memory of this English gentleman who came to spend six months here, are as precious to me as those he might say to the Queen. I knew which books, just like museums, just like exhibitions of his works, contained images of Ruskin's thoughts. I knew which friends had preserved the least important of his thoughts just like private collections. But here it is that in this little town, encountered by chance, in the memory still fresh after some years of this already aged beadle, something of Ruskin that has remained, something of his life, that he lived for himself, in the presence of this beadle.
   Have I not said that upon entering a poor house in the Midi, an amateur had been stopped short in the dining-room by a still surviving La Tour, overwhelmed beyond his wildest imagination and dreams, he himself actually there on the wall and unknown to anybody, apart from this labourer who saw it every evening and remembered the ancient occupant, as in the memory where she alone may sometimes glimpse it, because who could she talk to about it, where in this private insurmountable memory which cannot be seen from outside, like that rustic house and which will fall into ruins more quickly than it will, exists in the memory of the Stranger's mistress, a waiter from the inn, a friend from the regiment, one of the living portraits of Jean's character, an unknown memory of his life.

1. There seems to be some confusion here between B... and C... [Trans.]

 


Return to Front Page