In The Penal Colony by Franz Kafka, unabridged audiobook, read by Peter Yearsley

In the Penal Colony (transl. by Ian Johnston) “It’s a peculiar apparatus,” said the Officer
to the Traveler, gazing with a certain admiration at the device, with which he was, of course,
thoroughly familiar. It appeared that the Traveler had responded to the invitation of
the Commandant only out of politeness, when he had been invited to attend the execution
of a soldier condemned for disobeying and insulting his superior. Of course, interest
in the execution was not very high, not even in the penal colony itself. At least, here
in the small, deep, sandy valley, closed in on all sides by barren slopes, apart from
the Officer and the Traveler there were present only the Condemned, a vacant-looking man with
a broad mouth and dilapidated hair and face, and the Soldier, who held the heavy chain
to which were connected the small chains which bound the Condemned Man by his feet and wrist
bones, as well as by his neck, and which were also linked to each other by connecting chains.
The Condemned Man had an expression of such dog-like resignation that it looked as if
one could set him free to roam around the slopes and would only have to whistle at the
start of the execution for him to return. The Traveler had little interest in the apparatus
and walked back and forth behind the Condemned Man, almost visibly indifferent, while the
Officer took care of the final preparations. Sometimes he crawled under the apparatus,
which was built deep into the earth, and sometimes he climbed up a ladder to inspect the upper
parts. These were really jobs which could have been left to a mechanic, but the Officer
carried them out with great enthusiasm, maybe because he was particularly fond of this apparatus
or maybe because there was some other reason why one could not trust the work to anyone
else. “It’s all ready now!” he finally cried and climbed back down the ladder. He was unusually
tired, breathing with his mouth wide open, and he had pushed two fine lady’s handkerchiefs
under the collar of his uniform. “These uniforms are really too heavy for the
tropics,” the Traveler said, instead of asking some questions about the apparatus, as the
Officer had expected. “That’s true,” said the Officer. He washed the oil and grease
from his dirty hands in a bucket of water standing ready, “but they mean home, and we
don’t want to lose our homeland.” “Now, have a look at this apparatus,” he added immediately,
drying his hands with a towel and pointing to the device. “Up to this point I had to
do some work by hand, but from now on the apparatus should work entirely on its own.”
The Traveler nodded and followed the Officer. The latter tried to protect himself against
all eventualities by saying, “Of course, breakdowns do happen. I really hope none will occur today,
but we must be prepared for it. The apparatus is supposed to keep going for twelve hours
without interruption. But if any breakdowns do occur, they’ll only be very minor, and
we’ll deal with them right away.” “Don’t you want to sit down?” he asked finally,
as he pulled out a chair from a pile of cane chairs and offered it to the Traveler. The
latter could not refuse. He sat on the edge of the pit, into which he cast a fleeting
glance. It was not very deep. On one side of the hole the piled earth was heaped up
into a wall; on the other side stood the apparatus. “I don’t know,” the officer said, “whether
the Commandant has already explained the apparatus to you.” The Traveler made an vague gesture
with his hand. That was good enough for the Officer, for now he could explain the apparatus
himself. “This apparatus,” he said, grasping a connecting
rod and leaning against it, “is our previous Commandant’s invention. I also worked with
him on the very first tests and took part in all the work right up to its completion.
However, the credit for the invention belongs to him alone. Have you heard of our previous
Commandant? No? Well, I’m not claiming too much when I say that the organization of the
entire penal colony is his work. We, his friends, already knew at the time of his death that
the administration of the colony was so self-contained that even if his successor had a thousand
new plans in mind, he would not be able to alter anything of the old plan, at least not
for several years. And our prediction has held. The New Commandant has had to recognize
that. It’s a shame that you didn’t know the previous Commandant!”
“However,” the Officer said, interrupting himself, “I’m chattering, and his apparatus
stands here in front of us. As you see, it consists of three parts. With the passage
of time certain popular names have been developed for each of these parts. The one underneath
is called the bed, the upper one is called the inscriber, and here in the middle, this
moving part is called the harrow.” “The harrow?” the Traveler asked. He had not been listening
with full attention. The sun was excessively strong, trapped in the shadowless valley,
and one could hardly collect one’s thoughts. So the Officer appeared to him all the more
admirable in his tight tunic weighed down with epaulettes and festooned with braid,
ready to go on parade, as he explained the matter so eagerly and, while he was talking,
adjusted screws here and there with a screwdriver. The Soldier appeared to be in a state similar
to the Traveler. He had wound the Condemned Man’s chain around both his wrists and was
supporting himself with his hand on his weapon, letting his head hang backward, not bothering
about anything. The Traveler was not surprised at that, for the Officer spoke French, and
clearly neither the Soldier nor the Condemned Man understood the language. So it was all
the more striking that the Condemned Man, in spite of that, did what he could to follow
the Officer’s explanation. With a sort of sleepy persistence he kept directing his gaze
to the place where the Officer had just pointed, and when the question from the Traveler interrupted
the Officer, the Condemned Man looked at the Traveler, too, just as the Officer was doing.
“Yes, the harrow,” said the Officer. “The name fits. The needles are arranged as in
a harrow, and the whole thing is driven like a harrow, although it stays in one place and
is, in principle, much more artistic. You’ll understand in a moment. The condemned is laid
out here on the bed. First, I’ll describe the apparatus and only then let the procedure
go to work. That way you’ll be able to follow it better. Also a sprocket in the inscriber
is excessively worn. It really squeaks. When it’s in motion one can hardly make oneself
understood. Unfortunately replacement parts are difficult to come by in this place. So,
here is the bed, as I said. The whole thing is completely covered with a layer of cotton
wool, the purpose of which you’ll find out in a moment. The condemned man is laid out
on his stomach on the cotton wool—naked, of course. There are straps for the hands
here, for the feet here, and for the throat here, to tie him in securely. At the head
of the bed here, where the man, as I have mentioned, first lies face down, is this small
protruding lump of felt, which can easily be adjusted so that it presses right into
the man’s mouth. Its purpose is to prevent him screaming and biting his tongue to pieces.
Of course, the man has to let the felt in his mouth—otherwise the straps around his
throat would break his neck.” “That’s cotton wool?” asked the Traveler and bent down. “Yes,
it is,” said the Officer smiling, “feel it for yourself.”
He took the Traveler’s hand and led him over to the bed. “It’s a specially prepared cotton
wool. That’s why it looks so unrecognizable. I’ll get around to mentioning its purpose
in a moment.” The Traveler was already being won over a little to the apparatus. With his
hand over his eyes to protect them from the sun, he looked at the apparatus in the hole.
It was a massive construction. The bed and the inscriber were the same size and looked
like two dark chests. The inscriber was set about two metres above the bed, and the two
were joined together at the corners by four brass rods, which almost reflected the sun.
The harrow hung between the chests on a band of steel.
The Officer had hardly noticed the earlier indifference of the Traveler, but he did have
a sense now of how the latter’s interest was being aroused for the first time. So he paused
in his explanation in order to allow the Traveler time to observe the apparatus undisturbed.
The Condemned Man imitated the Traveler, but since he could not put his hand over his eyes,
he blinked upward with his eyes uncovered. “So now the man is lying down,” said the Traveler.
He leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs.
“Yes,” said the Officer, pushing his cap back a little and running his hand over his hot
face. “Now, listen. Both the bed and the inscriber have their own electric batteries. The bed
needs them for itself, and the inscriber for the harrow. As soon as the man is strapped
in securely, the bed is set in motion. It quivers with tiny, very rapid oscillations
from side to side and up and down simultaneously. You will have seen similar devices in mental
hospitals. Only with our bed all movements are precisely calibrated, for they must be
meticulously coordinated with the movements of the harrow. But it’s the harrow which has
the job of actually carrying out the sentence.” “What is the sentence?” the Traveler asked.
“You don’t even know that?” asked the Officer in astonishment and bit his lip. “Forgive
me if my explanations are perhaps confused. I really do beg your pardon. Previously it
was the Commandant’s habit to provide such explanations. But the New Commandant has excused
himself from this honourable duty. The fact that with such an eminent visitor”—the traveler
tried to deflect the honour with both hands, but the officer insisted on the expression—”that
with such an eminent visitor he didn’t even once make him aware of the form of our sentencing
is yet again something new, which . . .” He had a curse on his lips, but controlled himself
and said merely: “I was not informed about it. It’s not my fault. In any case, I am certainly
the person best able to explain our style of sentencing, for here I am carrying”—he
patted his breast pocket—”the relevant diagrams drawn by the previous Commandant.”
“Diagrams made by the Commandant himself?” asked the Traveler. “Then was he in his own
person a combination of everything? Was he soldier, judge, engineer, chemist, and draftsman?”
“He was indeed,” said the Officer, nodding his head with a fixed and thoughtful expression.
Then he looked at his hands, examining them. They didn’t seem to him clean enough to handle
the diagrams. So he went to the bucket and washed them again. Then he pulled out a small
leather folder and said, “Our sentence does not sound severe. The law which a condemned
man has violated is inscribed on his body with the harrow. This Condemned Man, for example,”
and the Officer pointed to the man, “will have inscribed on his body, ‘Honour your superiors.'”
The Traveler had a quick look at the man. When the Officer was pointing at him, the
man kept his head down and appeared to be directing all his energy into listening in
order to learn something. But the movements of his thick pouting lips showed clearly that
he was incapable of understanding anything. The Traveler wanted to raise various questions,
but after looking at the Condemned Man he merely asked, “Does he know his sentence?”
“No,” said the Officer. He wished to get on with his explanation right away, but the Traveler
interrupted him: “He doesn’t know his own sentence?” “No,” said the Officer once more.
He then paused for a moment, as if he was asking the Traveler for a more detailed reason
for his question, and said, “It would be useless to give him that information. He experiences
it on his own body.” The Traveler really wanted to keep quiet at this point, but he felt how
the Condemned Man was gazing at him—he seemed to be asking whether he could approve of the
process the Officer had described. So the Traveler, who had up to this point been leaning
back, bent forward again and kept up his questions, “But does he nonetheless have some general
idea that he’s been condemned?” “Not that either,” said the Officer, and he smiled at
the traveler, as if he was still waiting for some strange revelations from him. “No?” said
the Traveler, wiping his forehead, “then does the man also not yet know how his defence
was received?” “He has had no opportunity to defend himself,” said the Officer and looked
away, as if he was talking to himself and wished not to embarrass the Traveler with
an explanation of matters so self-evident to him. “But he must have had a chance to
defend himself,” said the Traveler and stood up from his chair.
The Officer recognized that he was in danger of having his explanation of the apparatus
held up for a long time. So he went to the Traveler, took him by the arm, pointed with
his hand at the Condemned Man, who stood there stiffly now that the attention was so clearly
directed at him—the Soldier was also pulling on his chain—and said, “The matter stands
like this. Here in the penal colony I have been appointed judge. In spite of my youth.
For I stood at the side of our Old Commandant in all matters of punishment, and I also know
the most about the apparatus. The basic principle I use for my decisions is this: Guilt is always
beyond a doubt. Other courts could not follow this principle, for they are made up of many
heads and, in addition, have even higher courts above them. But that is not the case here,
or at least it was not that way with the previous Commandant. It’s true the New Commandant has
already shown a desire to get mixed up in my court, but I’ve succeeded so far in fending
him off. And I’ll continue to be successful. You want this case explained. It’s simple—just
like all of them. This morning a captain laid a charge that this man, who is assigned to
him as a servant and who sleeps before his door, had been sleeping on duty. For his task
is to stand up every time the clock strikes the hour and salute in front of the captain’s
door. That’s certainly not a difficult duty—and it’s necessary, since he is supposed to remain
fresh both for guarding and for service. Yesterday night the captain wanted to check whether
his servant was fulfilling his duty. He opened the door on the stroke of two and found him
curled up asleep. He got his horsewhip and hit him across the face. Now, instead of standing
up and begging for forgiveness, the man grabbed his master by the legs, shook him, and cried
out, ‘Throw away that whip or I’ll eat you up.’ Those are the facts. The captain came
to me an hour ago. I wrote up his statement and right after that the sentence. Then I
had the man chained up. It was all very simple. If I had first summoned the man and interrogated
him, the result would have been confusion. He would have lied, and if I had been successful
in refuting his lies, he would have replaced them with new lies, and so forth. But now
I have him, and I won’t release him again. Now, does that clarify everything? But time
is passing. We should be starting the execution, and I haven’t finished explaining the apparatus
yet.” He urged the traveler to sit down in his chair,
moved to the apparatus again, and started, “As you see, the shape of the harrow corresponds
to the shape of a man. This is the harrow for the upper body, and here are the harrows
for the legs. This small cutter is the only one designated for the head. Is that clear
to you?” He leaned forward to the Traveler in a friendly way, ready to give the most
comprehensive explanation. The Traveler looked at the harrow with a wrinkled
frown. The information about the judicial procedures had not satisfied him. However,
he had to tell himself that here it was a matter of a penal colony, that in this place
special regulations were necessary, and that one had to give precedence to military measures
right down to the last detail. Beyond that, however, he had some hopes in the New Commandant,
who obviously, although slowly, was intending to introduce a new procedure which the limited
understanding of this Officer could not cope with.
Following this train of thought, the Traveler asked, “Will the Commandant be present at
the execution?” “That is not certain,” said the Officer, embarrassingly affected by the
sudden question, and his friendly expression made a grimace. “That’s why we need to hurry
up. As much as I regret the fact, I’ll have to make my explanation even shorter. But tomorrow,
once the apparatus is clean again—the fact that it gets so very dirty is its only fault—I
could add a detailed explanation. So now, only the most important things. When the man
is lying on the bed and it starts quivering, the harrow sinks onto the body. It positions
itself automatically in such a way that it touches the body only lightly with the needle
tips. Once the machine is set in this position, this steel cable tightens up into a rod. And
now the performance begins. Someone who is not an initiate sees no external difference
among the punishments. The harrow seems to do its work uniformly. As it quivers, it sticks
the tips of its needles into the body, which is also vibrating from the movement of the
bed. Now, to enable someone to check on how the sentence is being carried out, the harrow
is made of glass. That gave rise to certain technical difficulties with fastening the
needles securely, but after several attempts we were successful. We didn’t spare any efforts.
And now, as the inscription is made on the body, everyone can see through the glass.
Don’t you want to come closer and see the needles for yourself.”
The Traveler stood slowly, moved up, and bent over the harrow. “You see,” the Officer said,
“two sorts of needles in a multiple arrangement. Each long needle has a short one next to it.
The long one inscribes, and the short one squirts water out to wash away the blood and
keep the inscription always clear. The bloody water is then channeled here in small grooves
and finally flows into these main gutters, and the outlet pipe takes it to the pit.”
The officer pointed with his finger to the exact path which the bloody water had to take.
As he began to demonstrate with both hands at the mouth of the outlet pipe, in order
to make his account as clear as possible, the Traveler raised his head and, feeling
behind him with his hand, wanted to return to his chair. Then he saw to his horror that
the Condemned Man had also, like him, accepted the Officer’s invitation to inspect the arrangement
of the harrow up close. He had pulled the sleeping Soldier holding the chain a little
forward and was also bending over the glass. One could see how with a confused gaze he
also was looking for what the two gentlemen had just observed, but how he didn’t succeed
because he lacked the explanation. He leaned forward this way and that. He kept running
his eyes over the glass again and again. The Traveler wanted to push him back, for what
he was doing was probably punishable. But the Officer held the Traveler firmly with
one hand, and with the other he took a lump of earth from the wall and threw it at the
Soldier. The latter opened his eyes with a start, saw what the Condemned Man had dared
to do, let his weapon fall, braced his heels in the earth, and pulled the Condemned Man
back, so that he immediately collapsed. The Soldier looked down at him, as he writhed
around, making his chain clink. “Stand him up,” cried the Officer. Then he noticed that
the Condemned Man was distracting the Traveler too much. The latter was even leaning out
away from the harrow, without paying any attention to it, wanting to find out what was happening
to the Condemned Man. “Handle him carefully,” the Officer yelled again. He ran around the
apparatus, personally grabbed the Condemned Man under the armpits and, with the help of
the Soldier, stood the man, whose feet kept slipping, upright.
“Now I know all about it,” said the Traveler, as the Officer turned back to him again. “Except
the most important thing,” said the latter, grabbing the Traveler by the arm and pointing
up high. “There in the inscriber is the mechanism which determines the movement of the harrow,
and this mechanism is arranged according to the diagram on which the sentence is set down.
I still use the diagrams of the previous Commandant. Here they are.” He pulled some pages out of
the leather folder. “Unfortunately I can’t hand them to you. They are the most cherished
thing I possess. Sit down, and I’ll show you them from this distance. Then you’ll be able
to see it all well.” He showed the first sheet. The Traveler would have been happy to say
something appreciative, but all he saw was a labyrinthine series of lines, criss-crossing
each other in all sort of ways. These covered the paper so thickly that only with difficulty
could one make out the white spaces in between. “Read it,” said the Officer. “I can’t,” said
the Traveler. “But it’s clear,” said the Officer.” “It’s very elaborate,” said the Traveler evasively,
“but I can’t decipher it.” “Yes,” said the Officer, smiling and putting
the folder back again, “it’s not calligraphy for school children. One has to read it a
long time. You too will finally understand it clearly. Of course, it has to be a script
that isn’t simple. You see, it’s not supposed to kill right away, but on average over a
period of twelve hours. The turning point is set for the sixth hour. There must also
be many, many embellishments surrounding the basic script. The essential script moves around
the body only in a narrow belt. The rest of the body is reserved for decoration. Can you
now appreciate the work of the harrow and the whole apparatus? Just look at it!” He
jumped up the ladder, turned a wheel, and called down, “Watch out—move to the side!”
Everything started moving. If the wheel had not squeaked, it would have been marvelous.
The officer threatened the wheel with his fist, as if he was surprised by the disturbance
it created. Then he spread his arms, apologizing to the traveler, and quickly clambered down,
in order to observe the operation of the apparatus from below.
Something was still not working properly, something only he noticed. He clambered up
again and reached with both hands into the inside of the inscriber. Then, in order to
descend more quickly, instead of using the ladder, he slid down on one of the poles and,
to make himself understandable through the noise, strained his voice to the limit as
he yelled in the traveler’s ear, “Do you understand the process? The harrow is starting to write.
When it’s finished with the first part of the script on the man’s back, the layer of
cotton wool rolls and turns the body slowly onto its side to give the harrow a new area.
Meanwhile those parts lacerated by the inscription are lying on the cotton wool which, because
it has been specially treated, immediately stops the bleeding and prepares the script
for a further deepening. Here, as the body continues to rotate, prongs on the edge of
the harrow then pull the cotton wool from the wounds, throw it into the pit, and the
harrow goes to work again. In this way it keeps making the inscription deeper for twelve
hours. For the first six hours the condemned man goes on living almost as before. He suffers
nothing but pain. After two hours, the felt is removed, for at that point the man has
no more energy for screaming. Here at the head of the bed warm rice pudding is put in
this electrically heated bowl. From this the man, if he feels like it, can help himself
to what he can lap up with his tongue. No one passes up this opportunity. I don’t know
of a single one, and I have had a lot of experience. He first loses his pleasure in eating around
the sixth hour. I usually kneel down at this point and observe the phenomenon. The man
rarely swallows the last bit. He turns it around in his mouth and spits it into the
pit. When he does that, I have to lean aside or else he’ll get me in the face. But how
quiet the man becomes around the sixth hour! The most stupid of them begin to understand.
It starts around the eyes and spreads out from there. A look that could tempt one to
lie down under the harrow. Nothing else happens. The man simply begins to decipher the inscription.
He purses his lips, as if he is listening. You’ve seen that it’s not easy to figure out
the inscription with your eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds. True, it takes
a lot of work. It requires six hours to complete. But then the harrow spits him right out and
throws him into the pit, where he splashes down into the bloody water and cotton wool.
Then the judgment is over, and we, the soldier and I, quickly bury him.”
The Traveler had leaned his ear towards the Officer and, with his hands in his coat pockets,
was observing the machine at work. The Condemned Man was also watching, but without understanding.
He bent forward a little and followed the moving needles, as the Soldier, after a signal
from the Officer, cut through his shirt and trousers with a knife from the back, so that
they fell off the Condemned Man. He wanted to grab the falling garments to cover his
bare flesh, but the Soldier held him up and shook the last rags from him. The Officer
turned the machine off, and in the silence which then ensued the Condemned Man was laid
out under the harrow. The chains were taken off and the straps fastened in their place.
For the Condemned Man it seemed at first glance to signify almost a relief. And now the harrow
sunk down a stage lower, for the Condemned was a thin man. As the needle tips touched
him, a shudder went over his skin. While the Soldier was busy with the right hand, the
Condemned Man stretched out his left, with no sense of its direction. But it was pointing
to where the Traveler was standing. The Officer kept looking at the Traveler from the side,
without taking his eyes off him, as if he was trying to read from his face the impression
he was getting of the execution, which he had now explained to him, at least superficially.
The strap meant to hold the wrist ripped off. The Soldier probably had pulled on it too
hard. The Soldier showed the Officer the torn-off piece of strap, wanting him to help. So the
Officer went over to him and said, with his face turned towards the Traveler, “The machine
is very complicated. Now and then something has to tear or break. One shouldn’t let that
detract from one’s overall opinion. Anyway, we have an immediate replacement for the strap.
I’ll use a chain—even though that will affect the sensitivity of the movements for the right
arm.” And while he put the chain in place, he kept talking, “Our resources for maintaining
the machine are very limited at the moment. Under the previous Commandant, I had free
access to a cash box specially set aside for this purpose. There was a store room here
in which all possible replacement parts were kept. I admit I made almost extravagant use
of it. I mean earlier, not now, as the New Commandant claims. For him everything serves
only as a pretext to fight against the old arrangements. Now he keeps the cash box for
machinery under his own control, and if I ask him for a new strap, he demands the torn
one as a piece of evidence, the new one doesn’t arrive for ten days, and it’s an inferior
brand, of not much use to me. But how I am supposed to get the machine to work in the
meantime without a strap—no one’s concerned about that.”
The Traveler was thinking: it’s always questionable to intervene decisively in strange circumstances.
He was neither a citizen of the penal colony nor a citizen of the state to which it belonged.
If he wanted to condemn the execution or even hinder it, people could say to him: You’re
a foreigner—keep quiet. He would have nothing in response to that, but could only add that
he did not understand what he was doing on this occasion, for the purpose of his traveling
was merely to observe and not to alter other people’s judicial systems in any way. True,
at this point the way things were turning out it was very tempting. The injustice of
the process and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond doubt. No one could assume that
the Traveler was acting out of any sense of his own self-interest, for the Condemned Man
was a stranger to him, not a countryman and not someone who invited sympathy in any way.
The Traveler himself had letters of reference from high officials and had been welcomed
here with great courtesy. The fact that he had been invited to this execution even seemed
to indicate that people were asking for his judgment of this trial. This was all the more
likely since the Commandant, as he had now heard only too clearly, was no supporter of
this process and maintained an almost hostile relationship with the Officer.
Then the Traveler heard a cry of rage from the Officer. He had just shoved the stub of
felt in the Condemned Man’s mouth, not without difficulty, when the Condemned Man, overcome
by an irresistible nausea, shut his eyes and threw up. The Officer quickly yanked him up
off the stump and wanted to turn his head aside toward the pit. But it was too late.
The vomit was already flowing down onto the machine. “This is all the Commandant’s fault!”
cried the officer and mindlessly rattled the brass rods at the front. “My machine’s as
filthy as a pigsty.” With trembling hands he showed the Traveler what had happened.
“Haven’t I spent hours trying to make the Commandant understand that a day before the
execution there should be no more food served. But the new lenient administration has a different
opinion. Before the man is led away, the Commandant’s women cram sugary things down his throat.
His whole life he’s fed himself on stinking fish, and now he has to eat sweets! But that
would be all right—I’d have no objections—but why don’t they get a new felt, the way I’ve
been asking him for three months now? How can anyone take this felt into his mouth without
feeling disgusted—something that a hundred man have sucked and bitten on it as they were
dying?” The Condemned Man had laid his head down and
appeared peaceful. The Soldier was busy cleaning up the machine with the Condemned Man’s shirt.
The Officer went up to the Traveler, who, feeling some premonition, took a step backwards.
But the Officer grasped him by the hand and pulled him aside. “I want to speak a few words
to you in confidence,” he said. “May I do that?” “Of course,” said the Traveler and
listened with his eyes lowered. “This process and execution, which you now
have an opportunity to admire, have no more open supporters in our colony. I am its only
defender, just as I am the single advocate for the legacy of the Old Commandant. I can
no longer think about a more extensive organization of the process—I’m using all my powers to
maintain what there is at present. When the Old Commandant was alive, the colony was full
of his supporters. I have something of the Old Commandant’s power of persuasion, but
I completely lack his power, and as a result the supporters have gone into hiding. There
are still a lot of them, but no one admits to it. If you go into a tea house today—that
is to say, on a day of execution—and keep your ears open, perhaps you’ll hear nothing
but ambiguous remarks. They are all supporters, but under the present Commandant, considering
his present views, they are totally useless to me. And now I’m asking you: Should such
a life’s work,” he pointed to the machine, “come to nothing because of this Commandant
and the women influencing him? Should people let that happen? Even if one is a foreigner
and only on our island for a couple of days? But there’s no time to lose. People are already
preparing something against my judicial proceedings. Discussions are already taking place in the
Commandant’s headquarters, to which I am not invited. Even your visit today seems to me
typical of the whole situation. People are cowards and send you out—a foreigner. You
should have seen the executions in earlier days! The entire valley was overflowing with
people, even a day before the execution. They all came merely to watch. Early in the morning
the Commandant appeared with his women. Fanfares woke up the entire campsite. I delivered the
news that everything was ready. The whole society—and every high official had to attend—arranged
itself around the machine. This pile of cane chairs is a sorry left over from that time.
The machine was freshly cleaned and glowed. For almost every execution I had new replacement
parts. In front of hundreds of eyes—all the spectators stood on tip toe right up to
the hills there—the condemned man was laid down under the harrow by the Commandant himself.
What nowadays is done by a common soldier was then my work as the senior judge, and
it was a honour for me. And then the execution began! No discordant note disturbed the work
of the machine. Many people did not look any more at all, but lay down with closed eyes
in the sand. They all knew: now justice was being carried out. In silence people listened
to nothing but the groans of the condemned man, muffled by the felt. These days the machine
no longer manages to squeeze a strong groan out of the condemned man—something the felt
is not capable of smothering. But back then the needles which made the inscription dripped
a caustic liquid which we are not permitted to use any more today. Well, then came the
sixth hour. It was impossible to grant all the requests people made to be allowed to
watch from up close. The Commandant, in his wisdom, arranged that the children should
be taken care of before all the rest. Naturally, I was always allowed to stand close by, because
of my official position. Often I crouched down there with two small children in my arms,
on my right and left. How we all took in the expression of transfiguration on the martyred
face! How we held our cheeks in the glow of this justice, finally attained and already
passing away! What times we had, my friend!” The Officer had obviously forgotten who was
standing in front of him. He had put his arm around the Traveler and laid his head on his
shoulder. The Traveler was extremely embarrassed. Impatiently he looked away over the Officer’s
head. The Soldier had ended his task of cleaning and had just shaken some rice pudding into
the bowl from a tin. No sooner had the Condemned Man, who seemed to have fully recovered already,
noticed this than his tongue began to lick at the pudding. The Soldier kept pushing him
away, for the pudding was probably meant for a later time, but in any case it was not proper
for the Soldier to reach in and grab some food with his dirty hands and eat it in front
of the famished Condemned Man. The Officer quickly collected himself. “I
didn’t want to upset you in any way,” he said. “I know it is impossible to make someone understand
those days now. Besides, the machine still works and operates on its own. It operates
on its own even when it is standing alone in this valley. And at the end, the body still
keeps falling in that incredibly soft flight into the pit, even if hundreds of people are
not gathered like flies around the hole the way they used to be. Back then we had to erect
a strong railing around the pit. It was pulled out long ago.”
The Traveler wanted to turn his face away from the Officer and looked aimlessly around
him. The Officer thought he was looking at the wasteland of the valley. So he grabbed
his hands, turned him around in order to catch his gaze, and asked, “Do you see the shame
of it?” But the Traveler said nothing. The Officer
left him alone for a while. With his legs apart and his hands on his hips, the Officer
stood still and looked at the ground. Then he smiled at the Traveler cheerfully and said,
“Yesterday I was nearby when the Commandant invited you. I heard the invitation. I know
the Commandant. I understood right away what he intended with his invitation. Although
his power might be sufficiently great to take action against me, he doesn’t yet dare to.
But my guess is that with you he is exposing me to the judgment of a respected foreigner.
He calculates things with care. You are now in your second day on the island. You didn’t
know the Old Commandant and his way of thinking. You are trapped in a European way of seeing
things. Perhaps you are fundamentally opposed to the death penalty in general and to this
kind of mechanical style of execution in particular. Moreover, you see how the execution is a sad
procedure, without any public participation, using a partially damaged machine. Now, if
we take all this together (so the Commandant thinks) surely one could easily imagine that
that you would not consider my procedure proper? And if you didn’t consider it right, you wouldn’t
keep quiet about it—I’m still speaking the mind of the Commandant—for you no doubt
have faith that your tried-and-true convictions are correct. It’s true that you have seen
many peculiar things among many peoples and have learned to respect them. Thus, you will
probably not speak out against the procedure with your full power, as you would perhaps
in your own homeland. But the Commandant doesn’t really need that. A casual word, merely a
careless remark, is enough. It doesn’t have to match your convictions at all, so long
as it corresponds to his wishes. I’m certain he will use all his shrewdness to interrogate
you. And his women will sit around in a circle and perk up their ears. You will say something
like, ‘Among us the judicial procedures are different,’ or ‘With us the accused is questioned
before the verdict,’ or ‘We had torture only in the Middle Ages.’ For you these observations
appear as correct as they are self-evident—innocent remarks which do not impugn my procedure.
But how will the Commandant take them? I see him, our excellent Commandant—the way he
immediately pushes his stool aside and hurries out to the balcony—I see his women, how
they stream after him. I hear his voice—the women call it a thunder voice. And now he’s
speaking: ‘A great Western explorer who has been commissioned to inspect judicial procedures
in all countries has just said that our process based on old customs is inhuman. After the
verdict of such a personality it is, of course, no longer possible for me to tolerate this
procedure. So from this day on I am ordering . . . and so forth.’ You want to intervene—you
didn’t say what he is reporting—you didn’t call my procedure inhuman; by contrast, in
keeping with your deep insight, you consider it most humane and most worthy of human beings.
You also admire this machinery. But it is too late. You don’t even go onto the balcony,
which is already filled with women. You want to attract attention. You want to cry out.
But a lady’s hand is covering your mouth, and I and the Old Commandant’s work are lost.”
The Traveler had to suppress a smile. So the work which he had considered so difficult
was easy. He said evasively, “You’re exaggerating my influence. The Commandant has read my letters
of recommendation. He knows that I am no expert in judicial processes. If I were to express
an opinion, it would be that of a lay person, no more significant than the opinion of anyone
else, and in any case far less significant than the opinion of the Commandant, who, as
I understand it, has very extensive powers in this penal colony. If his views of this
procedure are as definite as you think they are, then I’m afraid the time has come for
this procedure to end, without any need for my humble opinion.”
Did the Officer understand by now? No, he did not yet get it. He shook his head vigorously,
briefly looked back at the Condemned Man and the Soldier, who both flinched and stopped
eating the rice, went up really close up to the Traveler, without looking into his face,
but gazing at parts of his jacket, and said more gently than before: “You don’t know the
Commandant. Where he and all of us are concerned you are—forgive the expression—to a certain
extent innocent. Your influence, believe me, cannot be overestimated. In fact, I was blissfully
happy when I heard that you were to be present at the execution by yourself. This order of
the Commandant was aimed at me, but now I’ll turn it to my advantage. Without being distracted
by false insinuations and disparaging looks—which could not have been avoided with a greater
number of participants at the execution—you have listened to my explanation, looked at
the machine, and are now about to view the execution. Your verdict is no doubt already
fixed. If some small uncertainties remain, witnessing the execution will remove them.
And now I’m asking you—help me with the Commandant!”
The Traveler did not let him go on talking. “How can I do that,” he cried. “It’s totally
impossible. I can help you as little as I can harm you.”
“You could do it,” said the Officer. With some apprehension the Traveler observed that
the Officer was clenching his fists. “You could do it,” repeated the Officer, even more
emphatically. “I have a plan which must succeed. You think your influence is insufficient.
I know it will be enough. But assuming you’re right, doesn’t saving this whole procedure
require one to try even those methods which may be inadequate? So listen to my plan. To
carry it out, it’s necessary, above all, for you to keep as quiet as possible today in
the colony about your verdict on this procedure. Unless someone asks you directly, you should
not express any view whatsoever. But what you do say must be short and vague. People
should notice that it’s difficult for you to speak about the subject, that you feel
bitter, that, if you were to speak openly, you’d have to burst out cursing on the spot.
I’m not asking you to lie, not at all. You should only give brief answers—something
like, ‘Yes, I’ve seen the execution’ or ‘Yes, I’ve heard the full explanation.’ That’s all—nothing
further. For that will be enough of an indication for people to observe in you a certain bitterness,
even if that’s not what the Commandant will think. Naturally, he will completely misunderstand
the issue and interpret it in his own way. My plan is based on that. Tomorrow a large
meeting of all the higher administrative officials takes place at headquarters under the chairmanship
of the Commandant. He, of course, understands how to turn such a meeting into a spectacle.
A gallery has been built, which is always full of spectators. I’m compelled to take
part in the discussions, though they fill me with disgust. In any case, you will certainly
be invited to the meeting. If you follow my plan today and behave accordingly, the invitation
will become an emphatic request. But should you for some inexplicable reason still not
be invited, you must make sure you request an invitation. Then you’ll receive one without
question. Now, tomorrow you are sitting with the women in the commandant’s box. With frequent
upward glances he reassures himself that you are there. After various trivial and ridiculous
agenda items designed for the spectators—mostly harbour construction—always harbour construction—the
judicial process comes up for discussion. If it’s not raised by the Commandant himself
or does not occur soon enough, I’ll make sure that it comes up. I’ll stand up and report
on today’s execution. Really briefly—just the report. Such a report is not really customary;
however, I’ll do it, nonetheless. The Commandant thanks me, as always, with a friendly smile.
And now he cannot restrain himself. He seizes this excellent opportunity. ‘The report of
the execution,’ he’ll say, or something like that, ‘has just been given. I would like to
add to this report only the fact that this particular execution was attended by the great
explorer whose visit confers such extraordinary honour on our colony, as you all know. Even
the significance of our meeting today has been increased by his presence. Should we
not now ask this great explorer for his appraisal of the execution based on old customs and
of the process which preceded it?’ Of course, there is the noise of applause everywhere,
universal agreement. And I’m louder than anyone. The Commandant bows before you and says, ‘Then
in everyone’s name, I’m putting the question to you.’ And now you step up to the railing.
Place your hands where everyone can see them. Otherwise the ladies will grab them and play
with your fingers. And now finally come your remarks. I don’t know how I’ll bear the tension
up to then. In your speech you mustn’t hold back. Let truth resound. Lean over the railing
and shout it out—yes, yes, roar your opinion at the Commandant, your unshakeable opinion.
But perhaps you don’t want to do that. It doesn’t suit your character. Perhaps in your
country people behave differently in such situations. That’s all right. That’s perfectly
satisfactory. Don’t stand up at all. Just say a couple of words. Whisper them so that
only the officials underneath you can just hear them. That’s enough. You don’t even have
to say anything at all about the lack of attendance at the execution or about the squeaky wheel,
the torn strap, the disgusting felt. No. I’ll take over all further details, and, believe
me, if my speech doesn’t chase him out of the room, it will force him to his knees,
so he’ll have to admit it: ‘Old Commandant, I bow down before you.’ That’s my plan. Do
you want to help me carry it out? But, of course, you want to. More than that—you
have to.” And the officer gripped the traveler by both
arms and looked at him, breathing heavily into his face. He had yelled the last sentences
so loudly that even the Soldier and the Condemned Man were paying attention. Although they couldn’t
understand a thing, they stopped eating and looked over at the Traveler, still chewing.
From the start the Traveler had had no doubts about the answer he must give. He had experienced
too much in his life to be able to waver here. Basically he was honest and unafraid. Still,
with the Soldier and the Condemned Man looking at him, he hesitated a moment. But finally
he said, as he had to, “No.” The Officer’s eyes blinked several times, but he did not
take his eyes off the Traveler. “Would you like an explanation,” asked the Traveler.
The Officer nodded dumbly. “I am opposed to this procedure,” said the Traveler. “Even
before you took me into your confidence—and, of course, I will never abuse your confidence
under any circumstances—I was already thinking about whether I was entitled to intervene
against this procedure and whether my intervention could have the smallest chance of success.
And if that was the case, it was clear to me whom I had to turn to first of all—naturally,
to the Commandant. You clarified the issue for me even more, but without reinforcing
my decision in any way—quite the reverse. I find your conviction genuinely moving, even
if it cannot deter me.” The Officer remained quiet, turned toward
the machine, grabbed one of the brass rods, and then, leaning back a little, looked up
at the inscriber, as if he was checking that everything was in order. The Soldier and the
Condemned Man seemed to have made friends with each other. The Condemned Man was making
signs to the Soldier, although, given the tight straps on him, this was difficult for
him to do. The Soldier was leaning into him. The Condemned Man whispered something to him,
and the Soldier nodded. The Traveler went over to the Officer and said, “You don’t yet
know what I’ll do. Yes, I will tell the Commandant my opinion of the procedure—not in a meeting,
but in private. In addition, I won’t stay here long enough to be able to get called
in to some meeting or other. Early tomorrow morning I leave, or at least I go on board
ship.” It didn’t look as if the Officer had been listening. “So the process has not convinced
you,” he said to himself, smiling the way an old man smiles over the silliness of a
child, concealing his own true thoughts behind that smile.
“Well then, it’s time,” he said finally and suddenly looked at the Traveler with bright
eyes which contained some sort of demand, some appeal for participation. “Time for what?”
asked the Traveler uneasily. But there was no answer.
“You are free,” the Officer told the Condemned Man in his own language. At first the man
did not believe him. “You are free now,” said the Officer. For the first time the face of
the Condemned Man showed signs of real life. Was it the truth? Was it only the Officer’s
mood, which could change? Had the foreign Traveler brought him a reprieve? What was
it? That’s what the man’s face seemed to be asking. But not for long. Whatever the case
might be, if he could he wanted to be truly free, and he began to shake back and forth,
as much as the harrow permitted. “You’re tearing my straps,” cried the Officer.
“Be still! We’ll undo them right away.” And, giving a signal to the Soldier, he set to
work with him. The Condemned Man said nothing and smiled slightly to himself. He turned
his face to the Officer and then to the Soldier and then back again, without ignoring the
Traveler. “Pull him out,” the Officer ordered the Soldier.
This process required a certain amount of care because of the harrow. The Condemned
Man already had a few small wounds on his back, thanks to his own impatience.
From this point on, however, the Officer paid him hardly any attention. He went up to the
Traveler, pulled out the small leather folder once more, leafed through it, finally found
the sheet he was looking for, and showed it to the Traveler. “Read that,” he said. “I
can’t,” said the Traveler. “I’ve already told you I can’t read these pages.” “But take a
close look at the page,” said the Officer, and moved up right next to the Traveler in
order to read with him. When that didn’t help, he raised his little finger high up over the
paper, as if the page must not be touched under any circumstances, so that using this
he might make the task of reading easier for the Traveler. The Traveler also made an effort
so that at least he could satisfy the Officer, but it was impossible for him. Then the Officer
began to spell out the inscription and then read out once again the joined up letters.
“‘Be just!’ it states,” he said. “Now you can read it.” The Traveler bent so low over
the paper that the Officer, afraid that he might touch it, moved it further away. The
Traveler didn’t say anything more, but it was clear that he was still unable to read
anything. ” ‘Be just!’ it says,” the Officer remarked once again.
“That could be,” said the Traveler. “I do believe that’s written there.” “Good,” said
the Officer, at least partially satisfied. He climbed up the ladder, holding the paper.
With great care he set the page in the inscriber and appeared to rotate the gear mechanism
completely around. This was very tiring work. It must have required him to deal with extremely
small wheels. He had to inspect the gears so closely that sometimes his head disappeared
completely into the inscriber. The Traveler followed this work from below
without looking away. His neck grew stiff, and his eyes found the sunlight pouring down
from the sky painful. The Soldier and the Condemned Man were keeping each other busy.
With the tip of his bayonet the Soldier pulled out the Condemned Man’s shirt and trousers
which were lying in the hole. The shirt was horribly dirty, and the Condemned Man washed
it in the bucket of water. When he was putting on his shirt and trousers, the Soldier and
the Condemned Man had to laugh out loud, for the pieces of clothing were cut in two up
the back. Perhaps the Condemned Man thought that it was his duty to amuse the Soldier.
In his ripped-up clothes he circled around the Soldier, who crouched down on the ground,
laughed, and slapped his knees. But they restrained themselves out of consideration for the two
gentlemen present. When the Officer was finally finished up on
the machine, with a smile he looked over the whole thing and all its parts one more time,
and this time closed the cover of the inscriber, which had been open up to this point. He climbed
down, looked into the hole and then at the Condemned Man, observed with satisfaction
that he had pulled out his clothes, then went to the bucket of water to wash his hands,
recognized too late that it was disgustingly dirty, and was upset that now he couldn’t
wash his hands. Finally he pushed them into the sand. This option didn’t satisfy him,
but he had to do what he could in the circumstances. Then he stood up and began to unbutton the
coat of his uniform. As he did this, the two lady’s handkerchiefs, which he had pushed
into the back of his collar, fell into his hands. “Here you have your handkerchiefs,”
he said and threw them over to the Condemned Man. And to the Traveler he said by way of
an explanation, “Presents from the ladies.” In spite of the obvious speed with which he
took off the coat of his uniform and then undressed himself completely, he handled each
piece of clothing very carefully, even running his fingers over the silver braids on his
tunic with special care and shaking a tassel into place. But in great contrast to this
care, as soon he was finished handling an article of clothing, he immediately flung
it angrily into the hole. The last items he had left were his short sword and its harness.
He pulled the sword out of its scabbard, broke it in pieces, gathered up everything—the
pieces of the sword, the scabbard, and the harness—and threw them away so forcefully
that they rattled against each other down in the pit.
Now he stood there naked. The Traveler bit his lip and said nothing. For he was aware
what would happen, but he had no right to hinder the Officer in any way. If the judicial
process to which the officer clung was really so close to the point of being cancelled—perhaps
as a result of the intervention of the Traveler, something to which he for his part felt duty-bound—then
the Officer was now acting in a completely correct manner. In his place, the Traveler
would not have acted any differently. The Soldier and the Condemned Man at first
didn’t understand a thing. To begin with they didn’t look, not even once. The Condemned
Man was extremely happy to get the handkerchiefs back, but he couldn’t enjoy them very long,
for the Soldier snatched them from him with a quick grab, which he had not anticipated.
The Condemned Man then tried to pull the handkerchiefs out from the Soldier’s belt, where he had
put them for safe keeping, but the Soldier was too wary. So they were fighting, half
in jest. Only when the Officer was fully naked did they start to pay attention. The Condemned
Man especially seemed to be struck by a premonition of some sort of significant transformation.
What had happened to him was now taking place with the Officer. Perhaps this time the procedure
would play itself out to its conclusion. The foreign Traveler had probably given the order.
So that was revenge. Without having suffered all the way to the end himself, nonetheless
he would be completely revenged. A wide, silent laugh now appeared on his face and did not
go away. The Officer, however, had turned towards the
machine. If earlier on it had already become clear that he understood the machine thoroughly,
one might well get alarmed now at the way he handled it and how it obeyed. He only had
to bring his hand near the harrow for it to rise and sink several times, until it had
reached the correct position to make room for him. He only had to grasp the bed by the
edges, and it already began to quiver. The stump of felt moved up to his mouth. One could
see how the Officer really didn’t want to accept it, but his hesitation was only momentary—he
immediately submitted and took it in. Everything was ready, except that the straps still hung
down on the sides. But they were clearly unnecessary. The Officer did not have to be strapped down.
When the Condemned Man saw the loose straps, he thought the execution would be incomplete
unless they were fastened. He waved eagerly to the Soldier, and they ran over to strap
in the Officer. The latter had already stuck out his foot to kick the crank designed to
set the inscriber in motion. Then he saw the two men coming. So he pulled his foot back
and let himself be strapped in. But now he could no longer reach the crank. Neither the
Soldier nor the Condemned Man would find it, and the Traveler was determined not to touch
it. But that was unnecessary. Hardly were the straps attached when the machine already
started working. The bed quivered, the needles danced on his skin, and the harrow swung up
and down. The Traveler had already been staring for some time before he remembered that a
wheel in the inscriber was supposed to squeak. But everything was quiet, without the slightest
audible hum. Because of its silent working, the machine
did not really attract attention. The Traveler looked over at the Soldier and the Condemned
Man. The Condemned Man was the livelier of the two. Everything in the machine interested
him. At times he bent down—at other times he stretched up, all the time pointing with
his forefinger in order to show something to the Soldier. For the Traveler it was embarrassing.
He was determined to remain here until the end, but he could no longer endure the sight
of the two men. “Go home,” he said. The Soldier might have been ready to do that, but the
Condemned Man took the order as a direct punishment. With his hands folded he begged and pleaded
to be allowed to stay there. And when the Traveler shook his head and was unwilling
to give in, he even knelt down. Seeing that orders were of no help here, the Traveler
wanted to go over and chase the two away. Then he heard a noise from up in the inscriber.
He looked up. So was the gear wheel going out of alignment? But it was something else.
The lid on the inscriber was lifting up slowly. Then it fell completely open. The teeth of
a cog wheel were exposed and lifted up. Soon the entire wheel appeared. It was as if some
huge force was compressing the inscriber, so that there was no longer sufficient room
for this wheel. The wheel rolled all the way to the edge of the inscriber, fell down, rolled
upright a bit in the sand, and then fell over and lay still. But already up on the inscriber
another gear wheel was moving upwards. Several others followed—large ones, small ones,
ones hard to distinguish. With each of them the same thing happened. One kept thinking
that now the inscriber must surely be empty, but then a new cluster with lots of parts
would move up, fall down, roll in the sand, and lie still. With all this going on, the
Condemned Man totally forgot the Traveler’s order. The gear wheels completely delighted
him. He kept wanting to grab one, and at the same time he was urging the Soldier to help
him. But he kept pulling his hand back startled, for immediately another wheel followed, which,
at least in its initial rolling, surprised him.
The Traveler, by contrast, was very upset. Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its
quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now
that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels
were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However,
when he now bent over the harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the inscriber, he
had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The harrow was not writing but only stabbing,
and the bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles.
The Traveler wanted to reach in to stop the whole thing, if possible. This was not the
torture the Officer wished to attain. It was murder, pure and simple. He stretched out
his hands. But at that point the harrow was already moving upwards and to the side, with
the skewered body—just as it did in other cases, but only in the twelfth hour. Blood
flowed out in hundreds of streams, not mixed with water—the water tubes had also failed
to work this time. Then one last thing went wrong: the body would not come loose from
the needles. Its blood streamed out, but it hung over the pit without falling. The harrow
wanted to move back to its original position, but, as if it realized that it could not free
itself of its load, it remained over the hole. “Help,” the Traveler yelled out to the Soldier
and the Condemned Man and grabbed the Officer’s feet. He wanted to push against the feet himself
and have the two others grab the Officer’s head from the other side, so he could be slowly
taken off the needles. But now the two men could not make up their mind whether to come
or not. The Condemned Man turned away at once. The Traveler had to go over to him and drag
him to the Officer’s head by force. At this point, almost against his will, he looked
at the face of the corpse. It was as it had been in his life. He could discover no sign
of the promised transfiguration. What all the others had found in the machine, the Officer
had not. His lips were pressed firmly together, his eyes were open and looked as they had
when he was alive, his gaze was calm and convinced. The tip of a large iron needle had gone through
his forehead. * * *
As the Traveler, with the Soldier and the Condemned Man behind him, came to the first
houses in the colony, the Soldier pointed to one and said, “That’s the tea house.”
On the ground floor of one of the houses was a deep, low room, like a cave, with smoke-covered
walls and ceiling. On the street side it was open along its full width. Although there
was little difference between the tea house and the rest of the houses in the colony,
which were all very dilapidated, except for the Commandant’s palatial structure, the Traveler
was struck by the impression of historical memory, and he felt the power of earlier times.
Followed by his companions, he walked closer, going between the unoccupied tables, which
stood in the street in front of the tea house, and took a breath of the cool, stuffy air
which came from inside. “The old man is buried here,” said the soldier; “a place in the cemetery
was denied him by the chaplain. For a long time people were undecided where they should
bury him. Finally they buried him here. Of course, the Officer explained none of that
to you, for naturally he was the one most ashamed about it. A few times he even tried
to dig up the old man at night, but he was always chased off.” “Where is the grave?”
asked the Traveler, who could not believe the Soldier. Instantly both men, the Soldier
and the Condemned Man, ran in front of him and with hands outstretched pointed to the
place where the grave was located. They led the Traveler to the back wall, where guests
were sitting at a few tables. They were presumably dock workers, strong men with short, shiny,
black beards. None of them wore coats, and their shirts were torn. They were poor, oppressed
people. As the Traveler came closer, a few got up, leaned against the wall, and looked
at him. A whisper went up around the Traveler—”It’s a foreigner. He wants to look at the grave.”
They pushed one of the tables aside, under which there was a real grave stone. It was
a simple stone, low enough for it to remain hidden under a table. It bore an inscription
in very small letters. In order to read it the Traveler had to kneel down. It read, “Here
rests the Old Commandant. His followers, who are now not permitted to have a name, buried
him in this grave and erected this stone. There exists a prophecy that the Commandant
will rise again after a certain number of years and from this house will lead his followers
to a re-conquest of the colony. Have faith and wait!”
When the Traveler had read it and got up, he saw the men standing around him and smiling,
as if they had read the inscription with him, found it ridiculous, and were asking him to
share their opinion. The Traveler acted as if he hadn’t noticed, distributed some coins
among them, waited until the table was pushed back over the grave, left the tea house, and
went to the harbour. In the tea house the Soldier and the Condemned
Man had come across some people they knew who detained them. However, they must have
broken free of them soon, because by the time the Traveler found himself in the middle of
a long staircase which led to the boats, they were already running after him. They probably
wanted to force the Traveler at the last minute to take them with him. While the Traveler
was haggling at the bottom of the stairs with a sailor about his passage out to the steamer,
the two men were racing down the steps in silence, for they didn’t dare cry out. But
as they reached the bottom, the Traveler was already in the boat, and the sailor at once
cast off from shore. They could still have jumped into the boat, but the Traveler picked
up a heavy knotted rope from the boat bottom, threatened them with it, and thus prevented
them from jumping in.

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