It was Christmas Eve.
Henri Duchemin sat on a worn-out bench in a restaurant, waiting for the rain to stop. The holes in his trouser pockets and the long hair tickling his ears were constant reminders of his poverty.
Weary of remaining still, he was preparing to leave when he recalled the dark hallway of his house, the damp courtyard, the narrow flight of stairs, and his room without a fireplace, directly under the roof.
To all that, he preferred the mild warmth of the restaurant.
A few regulars were reading the evening papers. A draft caused the gas mantle’s slender chain to sway. The maidservant, elbows resting on the sideboard, wanted to go home.
Suddenly all heads were raised; a beggar had just walked in.
“He’s a hunchback,” one of the customers said.
The wind from the street nearly extinguished the gas lamp. Shadows fell from the ceiling along the walls.
“Close the door!”
The beggar obeyed and, hat in hand, moved forward casting furtive glances from right to left.
“What do you want?”
“A bit of charity.”
This beggar was something like the actor who finally arrives on an empty stage. The maidservant, torn between the pleasure of being entertained and that of chasing the poor man away, only hung back for a moment.
“Go on now, get out. There’s no begging in here.”
The customers took advantage of the incident to get to know each other. Although they did not all share the maid’s opinion, they had the vague sense they would wind up approving of what she had done.
A sort of camaraderie grew out of this and they held forth for a long time on begging, on prostitution—on social problems, as they drily remarked.
The clock struck four times, although the hands pointed to 9:00.
Henri Duchemin sensed that these strangers were harboring unkind thoughts. He checked to make sure the cotton in his ears had not fallen out and, shaking out his overcoat, walked to the door. For a brief moment the light from the restaurant bathed the other side of the darkened street.
The rain streamed down the painted cast iron of the street lamps. The shimmering sidewalks seemed to be moving. The lanterns from the cars and taxis hardly gave off any light.
He entered a café. The awning, battered by the wind, threw down sheets of water.
Condensation swirled everywhere, fogging the glasses, the counter, the electric light bulbs. Customers had drawn on the mirrors.
Henri Duchemin ordered a coffee, a very hot coffee, which he swallowed in one gulp before the sugar dissolved.
A woman whose fur coat was still damp was drinking milk that seemed sweetened by the red of her lips. Her heavily made-up eyes remained continually open, like a doll’s.
“What a sad Christmas Eve!” she said.
Henri Duchemin was perfectly aware that certain women approach men to ask them for money, but he preferred not to think about it and keep the hope of a new experience alive.
“What a sad Christmas Eve indeed!”
He watched the door, afraid that his neighbor, Mr. Leleu, would come in. If he did, he would sit down right there beside him and without a doubt take his place.
“You must be bored, Sir.”
“Oh, I am…But don’t be offended. If you knew how I’m suffering…I’d like so much to open my heart to you…I am a stranger in your eyes. Be patient. I shall tell you the story of my life…It’s a very sad story…”
He was so happy to be speaking that he seemed somehow younger. He was sure he would be liked and this gave him confidence. He was about to go on when the woman burst out laughing:
“Don’t be ridiculous. If you’re so unhappy, just kill yourself.”
Henri Duchemin blushed. For a minute he tried to find a way to respond.
When he couldn’t, he got up and went out, his heart heavy with bitterness.
The rain whipped his face, reviving him. Two rows of gas lamps converged at the end of an avenue. People walked by, the fabric of their umbrellas touching their heads.
“Kill myself! The woman is mad…The world is so cruel,” he thought.
His damp trousers clung to his thighs. His feet slithered in his shoes that let in water from the gutters even during the dry days of summer. He saw nothing, not even the rivulets of rainwater swallowed by the sewers with the gentle lapping sound of a small waterfall.
At last he recognized a recess cluttered with tarred pipes where he often came to watch the men at work while he warmed himself by a brazier.
He had arrived.
The wind was so strong as he opened the door to his house that it felt as if someone wanted to keep him from going in.
Henri Duchemin slowly climbed the stairs then, once home, gently closed his bedroom door so as not to wake Mr. Leleu.
The lamp, once lit, revealed a disorder that surprised him—he had forgotten the housework had not been done.
The pieces of furniture, duplicated by their shadows, appeared to touch one another. Icy air crept beneath the window, stirring the curtains. The ceiling plaster was blistered from the damp. The wallpaper flapped like old posters. The unmade bed was cold. When the wind shook the door, the lock creaked.
“Kill myself…come now…she’s lost her mind!”
To drive out the memory of this woman, Henri Duchemin paced the room counting his steps, elated to find the same number going and coming. Then he noticed that his breath was sharper when he turned away from the lamp.
The shutters, unlatched by the wind, slammed so violently against the wall that he was afraid the neighbors would complain.
He opened the window wide: the flame of the lamp flickered; the curtains rose behind him like ghosts. A tram ticket flew about the room.
Across the street he saw a lit window; through the shutters a woman whose shadow was gesticulating.
Leaning out, his hair tangled in the wind, his hands blackened by the window railing, Henri Duchemin spied on this woman. He stood still with his eyes so wide that his pupils seemed smaller amid so much white.
But the light went out. Hoping it would turn back on at another window, he waited. The night was black. The wind, burrowing in his sleeves, froze his body. The rain shimmered around a street lamp.
He closed the window; standing motionless in front of the only armchair, he could sense everywhere, in the depths of the walls, standing on his bed, women languidly moving their arms about.
No, he would not kill himself. At forty, a man is still young and can become rich if he perseveres.
Henri Duchemin dreamed of people asking him for favors, of owning houses, of freedom. But once his imagination had calmed down, it seemed as if the disorder of his room had become greater, so much did it clash with his fantasies.
A mirror in a bamboo frame reflected his face. He forgot everything and, talking to himself, gazed at his reflection to see what he looked like when he spoke.
The lamplight was growing so dim that it now lit only the table. The flame flickered on its wick. Suddenly it went out.
Henri Duchemin, groping for matches, knocked over objects he did not recognize.
Drained from searching, he sat in the armchair and closed his eyes so as not to see the darkness.
The warmth from his body was slowly drying his clothes. He felt better. Soon it seemed to him that the floor was slipping away beneath his feet and that his legs were swinging in the void, like those of a child on a chair.
He had been sleeping for a long time when he felt the heat of a flame on his cheek, a little like someone’s breath.
He opened his eyes.
Mr. Leleu was there next to him holding a lamp.
Mr. Leleu was a docile fifty-year-old man who lived poorly. He was interested in the life of criminals and always sided with the police. He read the local crime news but never detective novels; he was uneasy reading stories about things that had not existed.
“Are you asleep, Duchemin?”
Mr. Leleu placed his lamp on the fireplace mantel. It continued to light the floor.
“I need to speak with you, Henri.”
Mr. Leleu stroked his beard, honing it to a point.
“Do you remember the woman in the café?”
“You have to do what she told you.”
“You think I must?”
“Yes, because you are unhappy.”
The rain, driven by the wind, relentlessly returned to assail the windowpanes.
“But I wouldn’t dare.”
“Why not, Henri? I’ve brought you a rope. The slipknot has been made. You see, everything is ready. I’ll come back once you’re dead; that way, no one will suspect me.”
Mr. Leleu rose.
“You’ll come back once I’m dead!”
“Yes. I’ll wake the other tenants. Adieu. I’ll leave you the lamp; I’ll retrieve it later.”
Mr. Leleu went out without a sound.
Left alone, Henri Duchemin rubbed his eyes and looked at the lamp. Realizing he wasn’t dreaming he wanted to write down his last thoughts, but he did not know what to say.
Suddenly, either because death frightened him or because he feared Mr. Leleu would come back, he decided to flee.
Mindful of the flashback, he blew out the lamp and left.
Although Mr. Leleu’s door was closed, Henri Duchemin walked on tiptoe.
Outside, the cold air gnawed at the nerve in one of his teeth. The slope of the street made him want to run. The bubbles floating on the puddles did not burst because they did not move.
Henri Duchemin walked through the faubourg. Words were written in chalk on the walls. A fence obscured an empty lot. Curtainless windows glinted like mica in the light of a lantern.
A cabaret, painted in red, flooded a cul-de-sac with light. Shadows shifted on the windowpanes still splattered with rain.
Any passerby would have hesitated to enter this dive.
Henri Duchemin, who on this night feared nothing, went in and sat in the rear as if he were a regular.
A few other customers were standing about, chatting with the proprietress. Her damp apron around her waist, her feet safe and dry on a duckboard, she was washing glasses.
“What can I serve the gentleman?”
“A glass of rum.”
Henri Duchemin swallowed it like a pill.
Then he drank beer, wine, liqueurs and, because this was not his habit, he was drunk in an hour. The alcohol made him maudlin, and so he was dismayed at the thought that he could not pay for his drinks.
Soon his thoughts grew muddled. He blinked his eyes as if blinded by the sun. He no longer perceived the glistening of the counter or even the clinking of the bottles.
Just then, despite his state, he became aware of a man in front of him dozing with his head on the table, arms between his legs.
Henri Duchemin could not believe his eyes. Thinking he was dreaming, he reached over and with a fingertip touched the sleeping man’s hair.
The latter woke with a start. His eyelashes were sticky. He must still have been half-asleep because he searched for his handkerchief in all his pockets. Although he was unshaved and his hat had no hatband, he was wearing a detachable collar. He had huge veins at the spot where one would kiss his hand.
No doubt like many people he was keen on a drink when he woke up.
As soon as the proprietress had brought him a bottle of wine, he swigged two glasses, one after the other.
He smiled, trying to strike up a conversation.
“What awful weather!”
Henri Duchemin did not respond. He didn’t mind chatting, but he distrusted strangers.
The customers, realizing their conversation was not changing the world, left the establishment.
The owner arranged her hair with her damp fingers. The two men observed each other.
“Listen,” said the stranger.
No word came to encourage him to continue.
“Listen, I said.”
“Tell me your name.”
Henri Duchemin did not know what to answer.
He thought he would be weakened, exposed, if he placed himself at the mercy of this stranger by telling him his name and, taken by surprise, he did not have the presence of mind to invent a false one.
Very quietly, as if he did not want to be heard, he said:
“Would you like to be my friend? Like you, I wouldn’t mind having a lot of money.”
Indeed, Henri Duchemin longed to have a lot of money. Because he thought that this desire could only come from a bold man, he was flattered that his tablemate had noticed. And so, even though this partnership seemed risky to him, he accepted.
“But what is your name?”
“I have no name.”
“You have no name?”
“I have one, but you don’t need to know it.”
“And what do you do?”
“Nothing. But from now on, we must act. Do you1 want to get rich, Duchemin?”
“Yes, if it’s possible.”
When the owner came to serve them again, the man without a name took her by the waist.
“Do as I do, then, Duchemin.”
Henri Duchemin would have been happy to do so if his strength had not been sapped by his timidity. “You mustn’t blush, young man,” said the proprietress, pulling away from the man without a name.
“Duchemin…I have important things to talk to you about. Pay attention.”
“I’m listening to you,” responded Henri Duchemin, also making the effort to say “tu” to his interlocutor.
“Would you like to be rich?”
“You must not answer ‘yes.’ You must answer: ‘I would like to.’”
“I would like to.”
A customer, dozing off near the stove, gave a start. The steam rising from his overcoat and shoes wrapped him in a transparent cloud. The proprietress, reading a novel, had trouble turning the pages.
“Are you listening to me, Duchemin?”
“I’m listening to you.”
“Between the life you’re leading and wealth, which do you choose?”
Drops of water were falling from a leaky faucet into a tub.
“You choose wealth.”
“Congratulations! You are saved!”
The man without a name drew close and took Henri Duchemin’s hand.
“Are you brave?”
Everything was motionless in the lit room.
“Good. In a little while, we shall enter a house. A banker is to spend the night there.”
“Yes. When he falls asleep…you…”
The man without a name removed his hat so that the sweat on his forehead would not dampen the leather.
“When he falls asleep…you…”
“You’ll kill him.”
“I’ll kill him?”
Henri Duchemin felt dizzy, like when he hadn’t eaten. His vision was blurry: the ceiling light and bottles fell behind the counter, then moved across the room.
“You’ll enter his bedroom…the moon will light your way…you’ll just need to strike…and you’ll be rich.”
“Help! Help!” cried Duchemin.
The proprietress did not even raise her eyes.
As for the other customer, he swayed on his chair, waking and falling back to sleep in turns.
“You’ll buy clothes, Duchemin, new clothes.”
Henri Duchemin took deep breaths in the warm air that dried his teeth.
“Shall we make a toast?”
“Two cognacs, please!”
The woman poured their drinks using several small gestures so that the glasses would not overflow.
A minute later the two men headed to the exit. The trapdoor to the cellar trembled beneath their footsteps. The man without a name pressed his mustache with his lips to suck up the last drops of cognac.
”Good evening, gentlemen.”
“We did not pay for our drinks, and she didn’t ask us for anything,” thought Henri Duchemin.
He wanted to share this thought with his companion, but he was afraid of appearing ridiculous.
It was raining again. Without exchanging a word, the two men, who slipped as the sidewalk sloped, headed toward the house about which the man without a name had spoken.
Henri Duchemin was undecided. Once out on the street that belonged to everyone, it seemed to him that the murder would be harder to commit. In the end he realized he should not have accepted. Still, it was too late to get out of the deal and he resolved to flee. But either he was waiting for the right opportunity to do so, or he was afraid of the man without a name so he kept putting off the moment to act.
Finally, at the sight of an empty lot, he ran away as fast as his legs would carry him. In order not to trip over a lump of earth or a stone, he raised his knees high, like a horse on parade. His tie floated behind him. Hollows and mounds followed one after the other beneath his footsteps, reminding him of the time when as a child he would jump off the top of one hillock the better to climb the next one.
A stitch in his side forced him to stop his running. Henri Duchemin was sluggish by nature, prone to stitches in his side.
Intoxicated by his freedom, his neck stiff, he wandered down a muddy path. Hedges with dead branches scratched his hands. The wind cut his breath short.
A tin can that he kicked over splashed his ankles as it toppled. Despite this incident, he felt like whistling, but the air came out of his lips like out of a tube. He did not know how to whistle. So he sang the only song he knew by heart.
“Duchemin!” cried a distant voice, one of those lone voices you hear in the woods on a Sunday.
He listened without breathing. He was afraid. He wanted to run. But his legs were shaking like they did during the war when as a stretcher-bearer he had carried a fellow soldier.
“Don’t be afraid. It’s me.”
It was the man without a name. So as not to frighten Henri Duchemin, he did not scold him. On the contrary, he told him he would have done the same thing in his place.
The two men left the path and took a few steps on the sidewalk as if they had clubbed feet while trying to remove the mud from their shoes.
Henri Duchemin, who had been too warm, was now trembling, which made him fear he was coming down with bronchitis. He no longer thought about running away; he simply wanted a bed in which to sleep.
The two men wandered the streets for a full hour. Sometimes they placed a foot in a puddle and were splashed up to their knees.
These events had no importance in relation to what was about to happen.
At last the man without a name stopped in front of a new house.
“Here we are.”
He rang. A window lit the street. Grumbling and the clattering of old slippers could be heard all the way outside.
“Who is it?”
The lock creaked and the door opened. A light bulb fixed on the ceiling made the upper part of the antechamber brighter. The man who had just opened the door was in shirtsleeves. You could tell from his hair and the blotches on one cheek that he had been sleeping.
“Come in, follow me,” he said.
He showed his guests into the dining room where, winter or summer, a basket of artificial flowers sat on the sideboard. A white porcelain lampshade covered an electric lamp hanging motionless at the end of a wire.
Henri Duchemin took off the overcoat that was numbing his shoulders and, comfortable, his arms longer, he sought with his eyes the stains on his jacket. They had disappeared.
The man without a name lay down on a sofa with his feet hanging off so as not to dirty the red velvet. He shut his eyes and fell asleep.
Henri Duchemin sat in a wicker armchair that creaked loudly even when he did not move and blew on his hands. Eyes closed, he imagined his whole body was bathing in warm breath. He felt that his feet were cold and wet, but it didn’t bother him. His feet were so far from his body. At times a car went down the street, almost touching the shutters.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door.
The man without a name got up like a passenger who was taking up two seats. Henri Duchemin, trying to recognize him, did not understand what was happening.
“Duchemin, he’s here.”
Yes, it was the banker. He was wearing an overcoat with a silk lining and holding a top hat in his hand. He came in, bowed in greeting, sat down on a chair, unfolded a newspaper, and studied the stock prices.
The silence was marred only by the rustle of the large sheet of paper.
Then the banker stood, motioned goodbye, and left the room.
The two men who remained alone wore the wily expression of a pair of domestics who had just won the sympathy of their masters.
“Follow me, Duchemin.”
On tiptoe, one hand against the wall, they walked down the dimly lit hall.
They entered a room with walls covered in flowered fabric.
“Sit down, Duchemin.”
“Take off your shoes.”
Henri Duchemin obeyed. It seemed to him that it was not his own shoes he was removing.
“Listen to me, Duchemin.”
“The bed is on the right…the window is open…the moon will light your way.”
“But there is no moon.”
“I’m telling you, the moon will light your way. You’ll strike as if you wanted to split a tree trunk…then you’ll be rich.”
Muffled sounds came through the wall.
“Take this hammer…the banker is in bed.”
“What if he’s not sleeping?”
“Go. It’s for your happiness.”
Henri Duchemin got up. His damp socks left the imprint of his feet on the wood floor.
He stopped three feet from the door.
“Go. After, you’ll be rich.”
“I’ll be rich?”
He was still reluctant.
“Go on, I tell you. You’ll be rich.”
Henri Duchemin entered the banker’s bedroom. He had held the doorknob tightly in his hands for so long that his fingers smelled of copper.
Exactly as the man without a name had said, moonlight lit the room. It was the light of insomnia, a light for sick eyes.
The banker’s body was hidden by blankets and his head, resting on the pillow, seemed to be lacking a torso. There was, moreover, something ridiculous about this older man’s head with its bare neck.
Henri Duchemin knew that if he did not want his courage to flag, he must not reflect at all. He moved straight toward the bed, all the while telling himself that what he was doing was not right so that it would not occur to him to stop. His knees knocked against the bed.
He raised the hammer as high as he could. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, he saw blood on the sheets and on the hammer lying on the eiderdown.
A wallet sat on the night stand. He took it without thinking that he would not have needed to kill the man to do so.
Then he returned to the room where the man without a name had led him.
It was empty. The lamp’s abandoned light lit only motionless objects.
Henri Duchemin called out, opened the wardrobes, touched the furniture without taking his eyes off the switch for fear someone would shut off the light.
There was no one. It was impossible. He was going crazy. He fell to the ground. He remained with his forehead resting on the wood floor for a long time, believing that no one could find fault with him there.
When he stood up, he felt better. He put on his shoes, looked around to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything, walked through the dining room, slipped into his overcoat, and went out.
The rain had stopped. A few clouds floated among the stars. Henri Duchemin wanted to run but, so as not to attract attention, he merely walked quickly. Time and again he touched his hand to his inner pocket; the bloated wallet had caused the pocket to come unstitched.
He drew himself up. To look at him, who would have guessed he was carrying a fortune over his heart? Who would have believed that this poorly dressed man was now a person of independent means?
The gas lamps drew two dotted lines at the level of a second story. Their brightness was sharper in the bitter-cold air.
Lulled by the rhythm of his footsteps, Henri Duchemin pictured women sitting on piles of bank notes as he took detour after detour so that the police would lose all trace of him.
As he passed in front of a café, he heard the irregular music of a player piano, half scrap-iron, half crystal. Women were laughing, no doubt over nothing. He attempted to peer above the curtain at what was going on inside, but he was too short.
In the end he went in, sat down quickly, and waited until the attention he had attracted died down.
Three women were sitting on a velvet bench.
Henri Duchemin gazed at them lustfully, wondering which of them he liked best. And although he was determined to be another man, he did not dare invite them to his table.
Nevertheless, without his needing to make a single gesture, one of them came to sit next to him. Her necklace of small pearls was too tight. She had the pallid, hostile skin of women who never blush.
Henri Duchemin rested his hand in the young woman’s lap and felt her garter button under his fingers.
He would have wanted to sing, laugh, shout, but he didn’t dare.
Little by little, however, he began to feel at ease. No one was making fun of him. The customers even seemed to get on well with him for, one by one, glass in hand, they came over to his table.
“Music! Music!” he cried.
Although he realized he had raised his voice, this did not bother him.
The the maidservant slid two coins into the piano slot.
“How about a game of poker?” asked a young man who was entertaining himself by shuffling a deck of cards.
“Good idea!” cried Henri Duchemin.
A small red carpet was opened out. The center of a slate was wiped clean. The deck was cut and the game began.
It did not last long.
Although Henri Duchemin did not know how to play, he kept winning. The other players, at the end of their resources, had to give up. They were not happy and conversed softly.
Their ill humor annoyed Henri Duchemin. He could not explain to himself how he had won; he never had any luck. And so, afraid of alienating his friends, he suddenly returned all the money he had won from them.
Stunned, they stopped speaking. Then, once they had recovered, they thanked him with exaggerated warmth. In their entire existence, they had never known such a generous man. He was a true friend, he was! And may the whole world follow his example!
Henri Duchemin rejoiced at the thought of having so many friends.
“Let us be brothers,” he said with eyes raised to the sky.
He was not crying, but tears were streaming down his cheeks. He glanced at the woman next to him.
“I am so happy! Life is so wonderful! What is your name, my child?”
When he received no answer, he continued:
“Allow me to kiss you…Oh! If you were to agree, we’d get married. I have money. I’d buy you everything you desired. I’d rescue you from this dive…You are too pure to live here…We would love one another.”
He stopped speaking when he realized he could no longer be heard over the laughter.
“Please! Be quiet, let him speak,” said a customer, winking in case anyone were to take his words seriously.
“If you’d like, my friends…we’ll never leave each other. Love will unite us until death. I have money. Why should I have any and not you? Let us share, share…”
This time, all hell broke loose. Everyone cheered him, except the woman next to him who pinched him under the table.
“Why should we despise one another? Let us love each other, let us show the way, we who are brothers.”
He rose amid the cheering. For just a second he thought about tossing his wallet to his admirers, but something inside held him back. He simply threw down a handful of bills.
“Take it, my friends. My true friends. It’s for you. Are we not brothers? And you, my darling, be happy like the others. I love you, life is beautiful.”
“Let’s go,” she said.
“To my place.”
The room filled with boos.
“Leave him with us.”
“He amuses us!”
“She wants the money.”
While everyone was speaking at once, Henri Duchemin began to realize that they did not like him. Life’s ugliness appeared to him. Until then, as long as they had been listening to him, he had lived in a dream.
Now, everything was finished.
Head in hands, he walked to the door. They begged him to stay. In vain.
Standing on the sidewalk he tried to hear through the door what was being said about him. But only a murmur reached his ears.
He wiped his lips so the cold would not chap them. He now knew that all men are thankless wretches. And let them stay that way! Henri Duchemin had no need to worry about them any longer. He could do without the entire world because he was rich.
He had been walking for an hour when it occurred to him to return to the new house where he’d killed the banker. No matter how he tried to convince himself that there was no point in doing so, the temptation was too great.
Hoping to lose his way, he wandered aimlessly, his hands grazed by the walls, yet despite his efforts, each step brought him closer to the house.
Suddenly he saw shapes moving behind the lit windows of a building. He drew closer. He recognized the new house. Two police officers, whose long shadows stretched to the middle of the street, were chatting in the entranceway.
The crime had been discovered.
Henri Duchemin thought about giving himself up. But, changing his mind, he turned tail. His unbuttoned overcoat floated behind him. A gust of wind carried off his hat. He was getting ready to chase after it when he had the feeling that he didn’t have time.
Bareheaded, he took off at a run. Arc lamps lit a boulevard from above. The stores’ metal shutters were drawn down to the sidewalk. Against the darkened cafés, cane chairs were stacked one atop the other.
Upset by the loss of his hat, Henri Duchemin did not dare glance at the few pedestrians he encountered.
For the second time, he thought of turning himself in, but the law terrified him. He knew all about it because he’d already ventured into criminal court with Mr. Leleu. With flushed face, he had pushed open the heavy padded doors. They had seen lawyers whose feet seemed huge beneath their robes. He had encountered not peace-loving city policemen, but municipal guards wearing the same sky blue color as in the war.
No, he would not turn himself in. It was better to remain free, for these heartless people would never understand the reasons for the crime. Indeed, no one would understand them. No doubt about it: he would have been happier among madmen in whose company he would have skipped, laughed, and sung.
Henri Duchemin heard the rumbling of a carriage. In the silence of the night, the noise terrified him. He imagined a prison van was following him and that the little slanted shutter slats were concealing policemen.
But the noise faded and he relaxed.
Not having the courage to return home or to take a room in a hotel because his description might have been released, he entered a train station.
There was no one in the main hall, which was cheerless like every place deserted by the crowd. In the distance cold locomotives could be seen. A lantern swayed to the rhythm of footsteps.
Henri Duchemin entered a waiting room and walked over to a sheet metal stove that blew little puffs of air in his face through the openwork. Every now and again his gaze would meet the vacant stare of a traveler who was awake.
Henri Duchemin’s eyelids were heavy with drowsiness and, like a horse, he dozed standing. His head fell forward.
Suddenly shouts rang out.
His teeth chattered. He shivered. He looked around the room. Photographs from a newspaper serving as a lampshade formed dark squares. People were getting up.
“Passengers for Dijon, Mâcon, Lyon, and Prison, all aboard,” shouted an employee.
He had been found out.
Terrified, he stepped over packages, opened a door that slammed when he was already far away, and ran straight ahead.
Soon he stopped. The street was deserted.
“How foolish of me!” he thought.
He wanted to retrace his steps but, even though he was sure he had been tricked by his imagination, he didn’t dare.
Henri Duchemin was overcome by such a crushing desire to sleep that he closed his eyes as he walked—but not for long, because he was afraid of veering off course.
A lantern twinkled in the distance like a common star. He had no reason to be anxious; people had every right to light lanterns. Still, he did not take his eyes off it for it seemed to him that, on this night, everything that was lit was lit because of him.
When he was close enough, he could read, scratched in the lantern’s blue paint: “Police Station.” Without turning around or paying any heed to which streets he was running down, he fled.
When he had run out of breath he stopped and began to think. Wasn’t it ridiculous to be afraid like this when he possessed a fortune? In the morning, everything would be set right.
He was wandering in the streets when exhaustion forced him to sit down on a bench. The air was bitter cold. He shoved his hands in his pockets and did not move. He knew that cold could kill. And so he tried hard to stay awake by imagining all the joys that would come to him because of his fortune.
His legs grew heavy. He stood up.
The streets were becoming narrower and narrower. Not a single light shone in the windows. From time to time he would cross a street, then cross back to the sidewalk he had just left. Sometimes he would stop and turn around as if someone had called to him, then take off again.
As he was walking along the barred windows of a night shelter, he read: “Post No Bills.” And, to show that they weren’t fooling, “Law of 29 July 1881.”
The shelter seemed abandoned. He went in, making sure to leave the door open so he could escape if necessary. The silence was bottomless. A disagreeable odor floated in the air. The black pipe from a stove ran straight up to the ceiling. The bunks, in rows along the whitewashed walls, were all occupied. The beggars must have been tormented by bad dreams for their nightclothes hung down to the floor or lay strewn among the beds. In a glass booth, the watchman, partly lit by light seeping under a lampshade, was reading a book whose pages were curling at the corners.
Henri Duchemin lay down on the floor. He felt safe. For a few minutes the rays from the lamp shone between the lashes of his closed eyes. Then everything grew dim. Despite the hard stone bruising his hips and elbows, despite the cold tugging at his face, he had dozed off.
So who was now stubbornly striking him on the shoulder? One of his enemies, no doubt. Or a policeman. Henri Duchemin did not move a muscle. He knew nothing was easier than pretending to be asleep. But what he didn’t know was that one never tires of trying to wake someone.
And, indeed, the irksome person did not tire.
So Henri Duchemin imagined that a prison guard, who naturally held a lamp in his hand, was offering him a last cigarette. In order to know what was going to happen, he took the cigarette in his sleep and, for the first time in his life, inhaled smoke. Then he got up and followed the guard. On a square a guillotine appeared. He saw its steel blade.
He was about to die when he was bullied awake.
“What are you doing here?”
“You have to leave. No one is allowed in after 9:30.”
Henri Duchemin complied. As he left, he saw the watchman’s empty booth, the book resting on the table, and the lamp lighting the entire chair.
Henri Duchemin tried to forget everything that had just happened by walking quickly, which also made him warmer. As he was crossing a street, the fact of not having to avoid cars seemed odd to him. His shoes rapped against the dry asphalt. Sometimes he would search the sky in the hope of catching a glimpse of the dawn, but the stars, still in the same place, remained sharp and bright.
He saw a public square where mothers strolled with their children during the day. The hope of finding a bench and the fact that its fence was not high encouraged him to go in. The watchman having gone off to bed, he climbed over the roll bars and paced the frost-covered lawn with a satisfaction that was all the greater since he knew only the gardeners had the right to step there. Then he looked through the panes of the watchman’s kiosk. He imagined a multitude of objects filling the booth, but all he saw were a few chestnuts on a table of black wood.
Disappointed, he sat down on a bench. Across the way, between the bare trees, he spotted a building, pale in the moonlight, whose shutterless windows and balcony railings reminded him of the city hall in a toy construction set. Not a breath of wind. The motionless cold of an icebox.
Eyes wide open, his eyelids not once coming to cover them even for a moment, Henri Duchemin was thinking. He was thinking that, now, he would be respected. And this respect would have been even greater had he not given away half his fortune to those people who, rather than being grateful, had made fun of him. But Henri Duchemin did not like regrets and so he filed that memory away.
The loss of his hat annoyed him as well, chiefly because he would have had the time to pick it up. But what’s done is done, one’s thoughts mustn’t linger on the past. What was the point in looking back? Tomorrow, he would buy a brand new hat and, better yet, a vest. He liked vests. Aren’t they a bit like the face of one’s body and don’t they wear a satisfied expression when the jacket is unbuttoned?
And at dawn, he’d go abroad. He pictured himself on a train. He even felt slight bumps as he passed the imaginary switching points. He saw the countryside and a very red sun rising over the frozen plowed fields. A peasant opened a barn door. He was just starting his day’s work whereas he, Henri Duchemin, was gliding along toward the unknown.
Henri Duchemin got up and began to walk quickly to give himself the feeling he was traveling.
Soon he found himself on a crowded street where, despite the late hour, people were celebrating. The crowd, the lit shops, the rosy poultry gave everything a holiday feel. The copperware was glistening in the light, so much so that it looked like liquid. The scent of tangerines was in the air. Everyone was laughing, having a good time. The pavement was dry. Along the sidewalk frozen puddles riddled with trapped bubbles gleamed in the gold of the lights.
“I want to be happy,” Henri Duchemin whispered as he stared at the women passing by.
One of them took him by the arm.
“I love you,” she said.
She was tottering slightly, but you could hardly tell because the unsteadiness of women’s legs is hidden under their dresses.
“Let’s get a bite to eat.”
They went into a neighborhood restaurant. The heat from the plates of food, the lights, and people’s breath warmed the room. It was a disagreeable heat, like any heat that doesn’t come from a fire.
Henri Duchemin removed his overcoat, smoothed his hair, and surreptitiously tossed the cotton from his ears under a chair.
As he was wiping off his dinnerware, he gazed around him. People envied him. Surely they thought that the woman with him was his mistress.
“Do you love me?”
“Do you swear it?”
Customers came and went. The electric light bulbs were reflected high up in the mirrors. Outside, groups walked by, singing. The squeaking of a toy balloon could be heard now and again in the room.
The young woman opened and closed her mouth, as if she were tasting something.
Henri Duchemin was thinking about the future. Yes, his heart would no longer race whenever someone knocked at his door. He would take care of himself. It’s so gratifying to do so when you are in good health. He would go to the dentist; he had had a toothache for a long time. Gone was that painful feeling that every new day rubs salt in a wound that could be healed if only you had the money.
“Listen. Let’s go away…away.”
After the meal Henri Duchemin felt better. He lit a cigar. The young woman’s eyes were closed. He looked at her with less embarrassment. Only the air passing between her lips proved that this face was alive.
She gave a start, then let her dull gaze flit from table to table.
“Your hat, Sir?” said the waiter.
“No, no, I don’t have one.”
This incident upset Henri Duchemin. To hide his discomfort, he opened his overcoat, which he had just closed.
“Let’s go…let’s go…let’s go.”
A group of people passing by forced him off the sidewalk. He turned back and, in a voice he thought sounded like the voice of every man, he swore at them. He was sure of himself. No one could have managed to intimidate him, not even a policeman.
Despite the crowd, they arrived quickly at the young woman’s hotel. Steadying herself on the walls, she went in first, partially opened the glass door to an office, and took her key.
A maid was making up her room. When the couple arrived, she withdrew.
Surprised that some people were compelled to work at night, Henri Duchemin entered the room.
The curtain around the dressing table was drawn back. He saw a blue pitcher and basin. There were photographs on the mirror. Pollen from a branch of acacia flowers had mixed with the cinders from the fireplace.
“Are you tired?” he asked her.
“I don’t feel comfortable.”
“Do you need a bit of air?”
“Yes…open the window.”
Henri Duchemin opened the window. A house that you could reach out and touch got lost in the night.
“How are you feeling now?”
“Do you love me?”
“I don’t know.”
“A little while ago you did.”
“That’s how it goes.”
She took off her skirt, stepped over it, and began to wash. Only half undressed as she was, her upper body seemed too long.
He went over to her, attempting to take her by the waist.
“Leave me alone.”
She splashed him. Surprised, he let her go. His lips were dry. A drop of water rolled down his nose.
“You don’t love me?”
“Leave me alone or I’ll scream.”
“No, don’t scream…don’t scream… I’m going.”
He opened the door. The sound of his footsteps, like those of a giant, filled the corridor. He raced down the steps thinking he was falling at each stair, for he felt as if he didn’t have the time or the strength to move his legs.
When he got to the street, he walked away with long strides. The lights from the stores made him uneasy. He passed in front of a movie theater and noticed a poster. It was the heroine from a movie. She was crying. The ingenuousness of this face awakened such a need for love in Henri Duchemin that he cried along with her.
The farther he got from this neighborhood, the more streetlamps there seemed to be, the wider the sidewalks, the bigger the windows.
Henri Duchemin was walking along the slatted wall of a cemetery when he caught sight of a shadow moving in front of him. He picked up his pace. Soon he was next to an old man whose oversized coat hid his hands.
“It’s bitter cold,” said Henri Duchemin.
The stranger’s white beard inspired trust. Henri Duchemin was afraid of being alone with himself. Talking with this old man until morning would make the time pass.
“Indeed it is.”
“You’re on your way home I assume?”
There was a moment of silence. The two men walked side by side. Henri Duchemin would have liked to walk faster, but he didn’t.
“And you, young man, where are you going?”
“I’ll be leaving at dawn.”
“What’s your job?”
A few black crosses rose above the wall. Farther on, behind the cemetery, there were new houses.
“Perhaps you don’t have a place to sleep?” asked the old man.
“Come home with me. It will be warmer. I don’t live far from here.”
The two men ventured down a dark street. From time to time they passed beneath an archway. Day was breaking. The moon had disappeared. It hadn’t waited for the sun to rise in order to do so.
At last they entered a remote house whose four sides had been battered by the wind.
There was no light to guide their steps; they groped their way up the stairs. At each landing, afraid of stumbling, they would raise their feet one time too many. Above them, the timber framework drew the staircase in reverse. Drafts slammed the doors shut.
“Wait a moment. I have to find my key.”
A few seconds later, the two men entered a hovel. The old man lit a candle. A newspaper covered the table. Henri Duchemin sat down in an armchair that was no sturdier than the one in his own room.
When the old man took off his overcoat, he appeared in a threadbare morning coat with a pocket in each of its distinct tails. Now, with an old man’s clipped movements, he paced back and forth, he bent over. Before he could light the fire, he had to pull the grate on the stove several times. The cloud of ash that rose settled on his shoes, turning them white.
Shabby clothes hanging on nails fanned out near the floor. There was very little air in the garret. A lacy paper lined a shelf. On the shelf, a fork, salt, a tin. Everywhere, broken, ravaged furniture, furniture you find in handcarts.
The fire blazed. It could be seen between the stove’s bands. The old man was straightening things up. From time to time he stopped to ask Henri Duchemin if he was cold, or else he would bring his hand close to the dormer window to make sure no air was leaking through.
At last he sat down. His face was lit by the candle’s flame. He sat straight on his stool, legs one next to the other, hands clasped.
The circle of smoke that the candle drew on the ceiling moved about ceaselessly. The only sound was the crackling of the wood. A gentle warmth pervaded the garret. Drops fell from the ceiling like diluted ink.
The old man poured some ashes on the fire. It seemed to go out. Thick smoke spewed from the ill-fitted pipe. Then, all of a sudden, the fire blazed again.
Henri Duchemin noticed with joy the pale light of dawn coming through the dormer window. He had the feeling that all was for the best. More than anything, he must not think, because thinking might make him sad, which would be ridiculous just as day was breaking.
He really had deserved an easier life. He had suffered his share. Now, he was able to see that the world was well designed. Aren’t both happy and unhappy people necessary?
He looked at the pained face of the old man.
“You are unhappy!” he said.
“You haven’t been lucky!”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Now, you know, it’s too late. I don’t know what I’d do if I were you.”
“What can I say? A person can get used to anything. I’m not as unhappy as I seem,” the old man answered.
“You’re not unhappy?”
“Well… I, I am happy. I can do anything I want. I won’t be made fun of any longer. I’m going abroad in a little while. And I have a lot of money on me. No one would ever know it.”
“So you see. People can be wrong. I have money, and a lot more than you realize.”
“Yes, but you murdered someone.”
Henri Duchemin grew pale. It seemed that all the blood in his body was flowing out through a hole. He looked at his hands. They were open. He had never looked at them while he was suffering.
The old man was speaking. He was saying:
“I obey the voice of the heavens. It tells me to stay poor. It tells me that happiness is the love of God.”
A pale light was falling from the dormer window. Stains were traveling all around the garret walls.
The old man was praying. He was swaying as if his stool had landed on a cloud.
Henri Duchemin stammered:
“What will become of me? What will become of me? I am lost…I’ve killed…I’ve killed.”
The old man raised his eyes.
“In order to redeem yourself, you must suffer.”
The sky was growing brighter still. The stars were disappearing one by one. Suddenly an infinite elation entered Henri Duchemin’s soul. A beatific vision replaced the sordid walls surrounding him. Slowly, in the light of day, the old man, standing with one hand raised, began to move away. A myriad of stars flashed like diamonds. Dazzled, Henri Duchemin was walking along the paths of paradise. Everywhere there were baskets of flowers, gilded vases, and angels flying upside down.
“Yes, I have killed, but I shall suffer, suffer my entire life. I shall redeem myself. I shall be forgiven. I will do everything, I’ll endure anything to be forgiven. Oh, to be forgiven! I shall be so happy. I shall suffer, suffer, my entire life.”
But like a flock of birds, the angels flew off together toward a patch of sky.
Henri Duchemin followed them with his eyes. He saw them growing ever smaller. Then, he turned his gaze toward the vases: they were no longer gilded.
He opened his eyes wide to see better. He awoke.
Henri Duchemin got up. The cold had chilled his body to the bone. Now he recognized the wallpaper and the sideboard to which he did not have the key. The light of dawn was seeping through the curtains. The marble fireplace, the two chairs, the bed had never seemed so still before.
Henri Duchemin picked up his hat and went out. For the first time, he saw flowerpots in the concierge’s window.
The street was empty. A frightening calm fell from the starless sky. With several flaps of its wings, a bird was slowly crossing the empty space.
Henri Duchemin walked straight ahead. On the horizon, wisps of motionless smoke stood out against the gray sky. It was Christmas Day.
He vaguely remembered his dream. He recalled an old man who had said that in order to redeem oneself, one must suffer. But that was of no concern to him, for he had never done anyone any harm.
This translation is dedicated to Donald Breckenridge.
1 - Here the character switches from the formal "vous" to the informal "tu," indicating additional intimacy and complicity.