August Strindberg.

Plays by August Strindberg: Creditors. Pariah online

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MR. Y. And probably it would be much easier for you to do this if
the - hm! - the thief had not been prompted by actual need, but by a
mania for collecting, for instance - or by scientific aspirations - by the
ambition to keep a discovery to himself. Don't you think so?

MR. X. You mean that I could not acquit him if actual need had been the
motive? Yes, for that's the only motive which the law will not accept in
extenuation. That motive makes a plain theft of it.

MR. Y. And this you couldn't excuse?

MR. X. Oh, excuse - no, I guess not, as the law wouldn't. On the other
hand, I must admit that it would be hard for me to charge a collector
with theft merely because he had appropriated some specimen not yet
represented in his own collection.

MR. Y. So that vanity or ambition might excuse what could not be excused
by need?

MR. X. And yet need ought to be the more telling excuse - the only
one, in fact? But I feel as I have said. And I can no more change this
feeling than I can change my own determination not to steal under any
circumstances whatever.

MR. Y. And I suppose you count it a great merit that you
cannot - hm! - steal?

MR. X. No, my disinclination to steal is just as irresistible as the
inclination to do so is irresistible with some people. So it cannot be
called a merit. I cannot do it, and the other one cannot refrain! - But
you understand, of course, that I am not without a desire to own this
gold. Why don't I take it then? Because I cannot! It's an inability - and
the lack of something cannot be called a merit. There!

[Closes the box with a slam. Stray clouds have cast their shadows on the
landscape and darkened the room now and then. Now it grows quite dark as
when a thunderstorm is approaching.]

MR. X. How close the air is! I guess the storm is coming all right.

[MR. Y. gets up and shuts the door and all the windows.]

MR. X. Are you afraid of thunder?

MR. Y. It's just as well to be careful.

(They resume their seats at the table.)

MR. X. You're a curious chap! Here you come dropping down like a bomb
a fortnight ago, introducing yourself as a Swedish-American who is
collecting flies for a small museum - -

MR. Y. Oh, never mind me now!

MR. X. That's what you always say when I grow tired of talking about
myself and want to turn my attention to you. Perhaps that was the reason
why I took to you as I did - because you let me talk about myself? All at
once we seemed like old friends. There were no angles about you against
which I could bump myself, no pins that pricked. There was something
soft about your whole person, and you overflowed with that tact which
only well-educated people know how to show. You never made a noise when
you came home late at night or got up early in the morning. You were
patient in small things, and you gave in whenever a conflict seemed
threatening. In a word, you proved yourself the perfect companion! But
you were entirely too compliant not to set me wondering about you in the
long run - and you are too timid, too easily frightened. It seems almost
as if you were made up of two different personalities. Why, as I sit
here looking at your back in the mirror over there - it is as if I were
looking at somebody else.

(MR. Y. turns around and stares at the mirror.)

MR. X. No, you cannot get a glimpse of your own back, man! - In front you
appear like a fearless sort of fellow, one meeting his fate with bared
breast, but from behind - really, I don't want to be impolite, but - you
look as if you were carrying a burden, or as if you were crouching to
escape a raised stick. And when I look at that red cross your suspenders
make on your white shirt - well, it looks to me like some kind of emblem,
like a trade-mark on a packing-box -

MR. Y. I feel as if I'd choke - if the storm doesn't break soon -

MR. X. It's coming - don't you worry! - And your neck! It looks as if
there ought to be another kind of face on top of it, a face quite
different in type from yours. And your ears come so close together
behind that sometimes I wonder what race you belong to. [A flash of
lightning lights up the room] Why, it looked as if that might have
struck the sheriff's house!

MR. Y. [Alarmed] The sheriff's!

MR. X. Oh, it just looked that way. But I don't think we'll get much of
this storm. Sit down now and let us have a talk, as you are going away
to-morrow. One thing I find strange is that you, with whom I have become
so intimate in this short time - that you are one of those whose image
I cannot call up when I am away from them. When you are not here, and
I happen to think of you, I always get the vision of another
acquaintance - one who does not resemble you, but with whom you have
certain traits in common.

MR. Y. Who is he?

MR. X. I don't want to name him, but - I used for several years to take
my meals at a certain place, and there, at the side-table where they
kept the whiskey and the otter preliminaries, I met a little blond man,
with blond, faded eyes. He had a wonderful faculty for making his way
through a crowd, without jostling anybody or being jostled himself. And
from his customary place down by the door he seemed perfectly able to
reach whatever he wanted on a table that stood some six feet away from
him. He seemed always happy just to be in company. But when he met
anybody he knew, then the joy of it made him roar with laughter, and he
would hug and pat the other fellow as if he hadn't seen a human face
for years. When anybody stepped on his foot, he smiled as if eager to
apologise for being in the way. For two years I watched him and amused
myself by guessing at his occupation and character. But I never asked
who he was; I didn't want to know, you see, for then all the fun would
have been spoiled at once. That man had just your quality of being
indefinite. At different times I made him out to be a teacher who
had never got his licence, a non-commissioned officer, a druggist, a
government clerk, a detective - and like you, he looked as if made out of
two pieces, for the front of him never quite fitted the back. One day
I happened to read in a newspaper about a big forgery committed by
a well-known government official. Then I learned that my indefinite
gentleman had been a partner of the forger's brother, and that his name
was Strawman. Later on I learned that the aforesaid Strawman used to run
a circulating library, but that he was now the police reporter of a big
daily. How in the world could I hope to establish a connection between
the forgery, the police, and my little man's peculiar manners? It was
beyond me; and when I asked a friend whether Strawman had ever been
punished for something, my friend couldn't answer either yes or no - he
just didn't know! [Pause.]

MR. Y. Well, had he ever been - punished?

MR. X. No, he had not. [Pause.]

MR. Y. And that was the reason, you think, why the police had such an
attraction for him, and why he was so afraid of offending people?

MR. X. Exactly!

MR. Y. And did you become acquainted with him afterward?

MR. X. No, I didn't want to. [Pause.]

MR. Y. Would you have been willing to make his acquaintance if he had
been - punished?

MR. X. Perfectly!

(MR. Y. rises and walks back and forth several times.)

MR. X. Sit still! Why can't you sit still?

MR. Y. How did you get your liberal view of human conditions? Are you a

MR. X. Oh, can't you see that I am not?

(MR. Y. makes a face.)

MR. X. The Christians require forgiveness. But I require punishment in
order that the balance, or whatever you may call it, be restored. And
you, who have served a term, ought to know the difference.

MR. Y. [Stands motionless and stares at MR. X., first with wild, hateful
eyes, then with surprise and admiration] How - could - you - know - that?

MR. X. Why, I could see it.

MR. Y. How? How could you see it?

MR. X, Oh, with a little practice. It is an art, like many others. But
don't let us talk of it any more. [He looks at his watch, arranges a
document on the table, dips a pen in the ink-well, and hands it to MR.
Y.] I must be thinking of my tangled affairs. Won't you please witness
my signature on this note here? I am going to turn it in to the bank at
Malmo tomorrow, when I go to the city with you.

MR. Y. I am not going by way of Malmo.

MR. X. Oh, you are not?

MR. Y. No.

MR. X. But that need not prevent you from witnessing my signature.

MR. Y. N-no! - I never write my name on papers of that kind -

MR. X. - any longer! This is the fifth time you have refused to write
your own name. The first time nothing more serious was involved than the
receipt for a registered letter. Then I began to watch you. And since
then I have noticed that you have a morbid fear of a pen filled with
ink. You have not written a single letter since you came here - only a
post-card, and that you wrote with a blue pencil. You understand now
that I have figured out the exact nature of your slip? Furthermore! This
is something like the seventh time you have refused to come with me to
Malmo, which place you have not visited at all during all this time. And
yet you came the whole way from America merely to have a look at Malmo!
And every morning you walk a couple of miles, up to the old mill, just
to get a glimpse of the roofs of Malmo in the distance. And when you
stand over there at the right-hand window and look out through the third
pane from the bottom on the left side, you can see the spired turrets of
the castle and the tall chimney of the county jail. - And now I hope you
see that it's your own stupidity rather than my cleverness which has
made everything clear to me.

MR. Y. This means that you despise me?

MR. X. Oh, no!

MR. Y. Yes, you do - you cannot but do it!

MR. X. No - here's my hand.

(MR. Y. takes hold of the outstretched hand and kisses it.)

MR. X. [Drawing back his hand] Don't lick hands like a dog!

MR. Y. Pardon me, sir, but you are the first one who has let me touch
his hand after learning -

MR. X. And now you call me "sir!" - What scares me about you is that you
don't feel exonerated, washed clean, raised to the old level, as good
as anybody else, when you have suffered your punishment. Do you care to
tell me how it happened? Would you?

MR. Y. [Twisting uneasily] Yes, but you won't believe what I say. But
I'll tell you. Then you can see for yourself that I am no ORDINARY
criminal. You'll become convinced, I think, that there are errors which,
so to speak, are involuntary - [twisting again] which seem to commit
themselves - spontaneously - without being willed by oneself, and for
which one cannot be held responsible - May I open the door a little now,
since the storm seems to have passed over?

MR. X. Suit yourself.

MR. Y. [Opens the door; then he sits down at the table and begins to
speak with exaggerated display of feeling, theatrical gestures, and a
good deal of false emphasis] Yes, I'll tell you! I was a student in the
university at Lund, and I needed to get a loan from a bank. I had no
pressing debts, and my father owned some property - not a great deal, of
course. However, I had sent the note to the second man of the two who
were to act as security, and, contrary to expectations, it came back
with a refusal. For a while I was completely stunned by the blow, for it
was a very unpleasant surprise - most unpleasant! The note was lying in
front of me on the table, and the letter lay beside it. At first my eyes
stared hopelessly at those lines that pronounced my doom - that is, not a
death-doom, of course, for I could easily find other securities, as many
as I wanted - but as I have already said, it was very annoying just
the same. And as I was sitting there quite unconscious of any evil
intention, my eyes fastened upon the signature of the letter, which
would have made my future secure if it had only appeared in the right
place. It was an unusually well-written signature - and you know how
sometimes one may absent-mindedly scribble a sheet of paper full of
meaningless words. I had a pen in my hand - [picks up a penholder from
the table] like this. And somehow it just began to run - I don't want
to claim that there was anything mystical - anything of a spiritualistic
nature back of it - for that kind of thing I don't believe in! It was
a wholly unreasoned, mechanical process - my copying of that beautiful
autograph over and over again. When all the clean space on the letter
was used up, I had learned to reproduce the signature automatically - and
then - [throwing away the penholder with a violent gesture] then I forgot
all about it. That night I slept long and heavily. And when I woke up,
I could feel that I had been dreaming, but I couldn't recall the dream
itself. At times it was as if a door had been thrown ajar, and then
I seemed to see the writing-table with the note on it as in a distant
memory - and when I got out of bed, I was forced up to the table, just as
if, after careful deliberation, I had formed an irrevocable decision to
sign the name to that fateful paper. All thought of the consequences,
of the risk involved, had disappeared - no hesitation remained - it was
almost as if I was fulfilling some sacred duty - and so I wrote! [Leaps
to his feet] What could it be? Was it some kind of outside influence, a
case of mental suggestion, as they call it? But from whom could it come?
I was sleeping alone in that room. Could it possibly be my primitive
self - the savage to whom the keeping of faith is an unknown thing - which
pushed to the front while my consciousness was asleep - together with the
criminal will of that self, and its inability to calculate the results
of an action? Tell me, what do you think of it?

MR. X. [As if he had to force the words out of himself] Frankly
speaking, your story does not convince me - there are gaps in it, but
these may depend on your failure to recall all the details - and I
have read something about criminal suggestion - or I think I have, at
least - hm! But all that is neither here nor there! You have taken your
medicine - and you have had the courage to acknowledge your fault. Now we
won't talk of it any more.

MR. Y. Yes, yes, yes, we must talk of it - till I become sure of my

MR. X. Well, are you not?

MR. Y. No, I am not!

MR. X. That's just what bothers me, I tell you. It's exactly what is
bothering me! - Don't you feel fairly sure that every human being hides
a skeleton in his closet? Have we not, all of us, stolen and lied as
children? Undoubtedly! Well, now there are persons who remain children
all their lives, so that they cannot control their unlawful desires.
Then comes the opportunity, and there you have your criminal. - But I
cannot understand why you don't feel innocent. If the child is not held
responsible, why should the criminal be regarded differently? It is
the more strange because - well, perhaps I may come to repent it later.
[Pause] I, for my part, have killed a man, and I have never suffered any
qualms on account of it.

MR. Y. [Very much interested] Have - you?

MR. X, Yes, I, and none else! Perhaps you don't care to shake hands with
a murderer?

MR. Y. [Pleasantly] Oh, what nonsense!

MR. X. Yes, but I have not been punished,

ME. Y. [Growing more familiar and taking on a superior tone] So much the
better for you! - How did you get out of it?

MR. X. There was nobody to accuse me, no suspicions, no witnesses.
This is the way it happened. One Christmas I was invited to hunt with
a fellow-student a little way out of Upsala. He sent a besotted old
coachman to meet me at the station, and this fellow went to sleep on the
box, drove the horses into a fence, and upset the whole equipage in
a ditch. I am not going to pretend that my life was in danger. It was
sheer impatience which made me hit him across the neck with the edge of
my hand - you know the way - just to wake him up - and the result was that
he never woke up at all, but collapsed then and there.

MR. Y. [Craftily] And did you report it?

MR. X. No, and these were my reasons for not doing so. The man left
no family behind him, or anybody else to whom his life could be of
the slightest use. He had already outlived his allotted period of
vegetation, and his place might just as well be filled by somebody more
in need of it. On the other hand, my life was necessary to the happiness
of my parents and myself, and perhaps also to the progress of my
science. The outcome had once for all cured me of any desire to wake up
people in that manner, and I didn't care to spoil both my own life and
that of my parents for the sake of an abstract principle of justice.

MR. Y. Oh, that's the way you measure the value of a human life?

MR. X. In the present case, yes.

MR. Y. But the sense of guilt - that balance you were speaking of?

MR. X. I had no sense of guilt, as I had committed no crime. As a boy I
had given and taken more than one blow of the same kind, and the fatal
outcome in this particular case was simply caused by my ignorance of the
effect such a blow might have on an elderly person.

MR. Y. Yes, but even the unintentional killing of a man is punished
with a two-year term at hard labour - which is exactly what one gets
for - writing names.

MR. X. Oh, you may be sure I have thought of it. And more than one night
I have dreamt myself in prison. Tell me now - is it really as bad as they
say to find oneself behind bolt and bar?

MR. Y. You bet it is! - First of all they disfigure you by cutting off
your hair, and if you don't look like a criminal before, you are sure
to do so afterward. And when you catch sight of yourself in a mirror you
feel quite sure that you are a regular bandit.

MR. X. Isn't it a mask that is being torn off, perhaps? Which wouldn't
be a bad idea, I should say.

MR. Y. Yes, you can have your little jest about it! - And then they cut
down your food, so that every day and every hour you become conscious of
the border line between life and death. Every vital function is more or
less checked. You can feel yourself shrinking. And your soul, which was
to be cured and improved, is instead put on a starvation diet - pushed
back a thousand years into outlived ages. You are not permitted to
read anything but what was written for the savages who took part in the
migration of the peoples. You hear of nothing but what will never happen
in heaven; and what actually does happen on the earth is kept hidden
from you. You are torn out of your surroundings, reduced from your own
class, put beneath those who are really beneath yourself. Then you get
a sense of living in the bronze age. You come to feel as if you were
dressed in skins, as if you were living in a cave and eating out of a
trough - ugh!

MR. X. But there is reason back of all that. One who acts as if he
belonged to the bronze age might surely be expected to don the proper

MR. Y. [Irately] Yes, you sneer! You who have behaved like a man from
the stone age - and who are permitted to live in the golden age.

MR. X. [Sharply, watching him closely] What do you mean with that last
expression - the golden age?

MR. Y. [With a poorly suppressed snarl] Nothing at all.

MR. X. Now you lie - because you are too much of a coward to say all you

MR. Y. Am I a coward? You think so? But I was no coward when I dared to
show myself around here, where I had had to suffer as I did. - But can
you tell what makes one suffer most while in there? - It is that the
others are not in there too!

MR. X. What others?

MR. Y. Those that go unpunished.

MR. X. Are you thinking of me?

MR. Y. I am.

MR. X. But I have committed no crime.

MR. Y. Oh, haven't you?

MR. X. No, a misfortune is no crime.

MR. Y. So, it's a misfortune to commit murder?

MR. X. I have not committed murder.

MR. Y. Is it not murder to kill a person?

MR. X. Not always. The law speaks of murder, manslaughter, killing
in self-defence - and it makes a distinction between intentional and
unintentional killing. However - now you really frighten me, for it's
becoming plain to me that you belong to the most dangerous of all human
groups - that of the stupid.

MR. Y. So you imagine that I am stupid? Well, listen - would you like me
to show you how clever I am?

MR. X. Come on!

MR. Y. I think you'll have to admit that there is both logic and
wisdom in the argument I'm now going to give you. You have suffered a
misfortune which might have brought you two years at hard labor. You
have completely escaped the disgrace of being punished. And here you see
before you a man - who has also suffered a misfortune - the victim of an
unconscious impulse - and who has had to stand two years of hard labor
for it. Only by some great scientific achievement can this man wipe
off the taint that has become attached to him without any fault of
his own - but in order to arrive at some such achievement, he must have
money - a lot of money - and money this minute! Don't you think that the
other one, the unpunished one, would bring a little better balance into
these unequal human conditions if he paid a penalty in the form of a
fine? Don't you think so?

MR. X. [Calmly] Yes.

MR. Y. Then we understand each other. - Hm! [Pause] What do you think
would be reasonable?

MR. X. Reasonable? The minimum fine in such a case is fixed by the law
at fifty crowns. But this whole question is settled by the fact that the
dead man left no relatives.

MR. Y. Apparently you don't want to understand. Then I'll have to speak
plainly: it is to me you must pay that fine.

MR. X. I have never heard that forgers have the right to collect fines
imposed for manslaughter. And, besides, there is no prosecutor.

MR. Y. There isn't? Well - how would I do?

MR. X. Oh, NOW we are getting the matter cleared up! How much do you
want for becoming my accomplice?

MR. Y. Six thousand crowns.

MR. X. That's too much. And where am I to get them?

(MR. Y. points to the box.)

MR. X. No, I don't want to do that. I don't want to become a thief.

MR. Y. Oh, don't put on any airs now! Do you think I'll believe that you
haven't helped yourself out of that box before?

MR. X. [As if speaking to himself] Think only, that I could let myself
be fooled so completely. But that's the way with these soft natures.
You like them, and then it's so easy to believe that they like you. And
that's the reason why I have always been on my guard against people I
take a liking to! - So you are firmly convinced that I have helped myself
out of the box before?

MR. Y. Certainly! MR. X. And you are going to report me if you don't get
six thousand crowns?

MR. Y. Most decidedly! You can't get out of it, so there's no use

MR. X. You think I am going to give my father a thief for son, my wife
a thief for husband, my children a thief for father, my fellow-workers a
thief for colleague? No, that will never happen! - Now I am going over to
the sheriff to report the killing myself.

MR. Y. [Jumps up and begins to pick up his things] Wait a moment!

MR. X. For what?

MR. Y. [Stammering] Oh, I thought - as I am no longer needed - it wouldn't
be necessary for me to stay - and I might just as well leave.

MR. X. No, you may not! - Sit down there at the table, where you sat
before, and we'll have another talk before you go.

MR. Y. [Sits down after having put on a dark coat] What are you up to

MR. X. [Looking into the mirror back of MR. Y.] Oh, now I have it!

MR. Y. [Alarmed] What kind of wonderful things are you discovering now?

MR. X. I see in the mirror that you are a thief - a plain, ordinary
thief! A moment ago, while you had only the white shirt on, I could
notice that there was something wrong about my book-shelf. I couldn't
make out just what it was, for I had to listen to you and watch you. But
as my antipathy increased, my vision became more acute. And now, with
your black coat to furnish the needed color contrast For the red back
of the book, which before couldn't be seen against the red of your
suspenders - now I see that you have been reading about forgeries in
Bernheim's work on mental suggestion - for you turned the book upsidedown
in putting it back. So even that story of yours was stolen! For tins
reason I think myself entitled to conclude that your crime must have
been prompted by need, or by mere love of pleasure.

MR. Y. By need! If you only knew -

MR. X. If YOU only knew the extent of the need I have had to face and
live through! But that's another story! Let's proceed with your case.
That you have been in prison - I take that for granted. But it happened
in America, for it was American prison life you described. Another thing
may also be taken for granted, namely, that you have not borne your

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