|The Tell-Tale Heart
Edgar Allan Poe
True! --nervous --very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses --not destroyed --not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily --how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture --a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees --very gradually --I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever.
Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded --with what caution --with what foresight --with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him. And every night, about midnight, I turned the latch of his door and opened it --oh so gently! And then, when I had made an opening sufficient for my head, I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, that no light shone out, and then I thrust in my head. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I thrust it in! I moved it slowly --very, very slowly, so that I might not disturb the old man's sleep. It took me an hour to place my whole head within the opening so far that I could see him as he lay upon his bed. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this, And then, when my head was well in the room, I undid the lantern cautiously-oh, so cautiously --cautiously (for the hinges creaked) --I undid it just so much that a single thin ray fell upon the vulture eye. And this I did for seven long nights --every night just at midnight --but I found the eye always closed; and so it was impossible to do the work; for it was not the old man who vexed me, but his Evil Eye. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he has passed the night. So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I looked in upon him while he slept.
Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious in opening the door. A watch's minute hand moves more quickly than did mine. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers --of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, opening the door, little by little, and he not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts. I fairly chuckled at the idea; and perhaps he heard me; for he moved on the bed suddenly, as if startled. Now you may think that I drew back --but no. His room was as black as pitch with the thick darkness, (for the shutters were close fastened, through fear of robbers,) and so I knew that he could not see the opening of the door, and I kept pushing it on steadily, steadily. I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening, and the old man sprang up in bed, crying out --"Who's there?" I kept quite still and said nothing. For a whole hour I did not move a muscle, and in the meantime I did not hear him lie down. He was still sitting up in the bed listening; --just as I have done, night after night, hearkening to the death watches in the wall.
Presently I heard a slight groan, and I knew it was the groan of mortal terror. It was not a groan of pain or of grief --oh, no! --it was the low stifled sound that arises from the bottom of the soul when overcharged with awe. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me. I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise, when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself --"It is nothing but the wind in the chimney --it is only a mouse crossing the floor," or "It is merely a cricket which has made a single chirp." Yes, he had been trying to comfort himself with these suppositions: but he had found all in vain. All in vain; because Death, in approaching him had stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim. And it was the mournful influence of the unperceived shadow that caused him to feel --although he neither saw nor heard --to feel the presence of my head within the room.
When I had waited a long time, very patiently, without hearing him lie down, I resolved to open a little --a very, very little crevice in the lantern. So I opened it --you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily --until, at length a simple dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and fell full upon the vulture eye. It was open --wide, wide open --and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness --all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could see nothing else of the old man's face or person: for I had directed the ray as if by instinct, precisely upon the damned spot. And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? --now, I say, there came to my ears a low, dull, quick sound, such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I knew that sound well, too. It was the beating of the old man's heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.
But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I held the lantern motionless. I tried how steadily I could maintain the ray upon the eve. Meantime the hellish tattoo of the heart increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. The old man's terror must have been extreme! It grew louder, I say, louder every moment! --do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of that old house, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I thought the heart must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me --the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man's hour had come! With a loud yell, I threw open the lantern and leaped into the room. He shrieked once --once only. In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eve would trouble me no more.
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs. I then took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye --not even his --could have detected any thing wrong. There was nothing to wash out --no stain of any kind --no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that. A tub had caught all --ha! ha! When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o'clock --still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came a knocking at the street door. I went down to open it with a light heart, --for what had I now to fear? There entered three men, who introduced themselves, with perfect suavity, as officers of the police. A shriek had been heard by a neighbour during the night; suspicion of foul play had been aroused; information had been lodged at the police office, and they (the officers) had been deputed to search the premises. I smiled, --for what had I to fear? I bade the gentlemen welcome. The shriek, I said, was my own in a dream. The old man, I mentioned, was absent in the country. I took my visitors all over the house. I bade them search --search well. I led them, at length, to his chamber. I showed them his treasures, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought chairs into the room, and desired them here to rest from their fatigues, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the corpse of the victim.
The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease. They sat, and while I answered cheerily, they chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished them gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still they sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: --It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness --until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears. No doubt I now grew very pale; --but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased --and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound --much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath --and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly --more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men --but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed --I raved --I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder --louder --louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! --they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now --again! --hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"
The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th, but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.
The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix-- the villagers pronounced this name "Dellacroy"--eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys. and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.
Soon the men began to gather, surveying their own children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes. They stood together, away from the pile of stones in the corner, and their jokes were quiet and they smiled rather than laughed. The women, wearing faded house dresses and sweaters, came shortly after their menfolk. They greeted one another and exchanged bits of gossip as they went to join their husbands. Soon the women, standing by their husbands, began to call to their children, and the children came reluctantly, having to be called four or five times. Bobby Martin ducked under his mother's grasping hand and ran, laughing, back to the pile of stones. His father spoke up sharply, and Bobby came quickly and took his place between his father and his oldest brother.
The lottery was conducted--as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program--by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities. He was a round-faced, jovial man and he ran the coal business, and people were sorry for him, because he had no children and his wife was a scold. When he arrived in the square, carrying the black wooden box, there was a murmur of conversation among the villagers, and he waved and called, "Little late today, folks." The postmaster, Mr. Graves, followed him, carrying a three-legged stool, and the stool was put in the center of the square and Mr. Summers set the black box down on it. The villagers kept their distance, leaving a space between themselves and the stool, and when Mr. Summers said, "Some of you fellows want to give me a hand?" there was a hesitation before two men. Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, came forward to hold the box steady on the stool while Mr. Summers stirred up the papers inside it.
The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything's being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.
Mr. Martin and his oldest son, Baxter, held the black box securely on the stool until Mr. Summers had stirred the papers thoroughly with his hand. Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded, Mr. Summers had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations. Chips of wood, Mr. Summers had argued, had been all very well when the village was tiny, but now that the population was more than three hundred and likely to keep on growing, it was necessary to use something that would fit more easily into he black box. The night before the lottery, Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves made up the slips of paper and put them in the box, and it was then taken to the safe of Mr. Summers' coal company and locked up until Mr. Summers was ready to take it to the square next morning. The rest of the year, the box was put way, sometimes one place, sometimes another; it had spent one year in Mr. Graves's barn and another year underfoot in the post office, and sometimes it was set on a shelf in the Martin grocery and left there.
There was a great deal of fussing to be done before Mr. Summers declared the lottery open. There were the lists to make up--of heads of families, heads of households in each family, members of each household in each family. There was the proper swearing-in of Mr. Summers by the postmaster, as the official of the lottery; at one time, some people remembered, there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory. tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. There had been, also, a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had had to use in addressing each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed with time, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching. Mr. Summers was very good at all this; in his clean white shirt and blue jeans, with one hand resting carelessly on the black box, he seemed very proper and important as he talked interminably to Mr. Graves and the Martins.
Just as Mr. Summers finally left off talking and turned to the assembled villagers, Mrs. Hutchinson came hurriedly along the path to the square, her sweater thrown over her shoulders, and slid into place in the back of the crowd. "Clean forgot what day it was," she said to Mrs. Delacroix, who stood next to her, and they both laughed softly. "Thought my old man was out back stacking wood," Mrs. Hutchinson went on, "and then I looked out the window and the kids was gone, and then I remembered it was the twenty-seventh and came a-running." She dried her hands on her apron, and Mrs. Delacroix said, "You're in time, though. They're still talking away up there."
Mrs. Hutchinson craned her neck to see through the crowd and found her husband and children standing near the front. She tapped Mrs. Delacroix on the arm as a farewell and began to make her way through the crowd. The people separated good-humoredly to let her through: two or three people said. in voices just loud enough to be heard across the crowd, "Here comes your, Missus, Hutchinson," and "Bill, she made it after all." Mrs. Hutchinson reached her husband, and Mr. Summers, who had been waiting, said cheerfully, "Thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie." Mrs. Hutchinson said, grinning, "Wouldn't have me leave m'dishes in the sink, now, would you. Joe?," and soft laughter ran through the crowd as the people stirred back into position after Mrs. Hutchinson's arrival.
"Well, now." Mr. Summers said soberly, "guess we better get started, get this over with, so's we can go back to work. Anybody ain't here?"
"Dunbar." several people said. "Dunbar. Dunbar."
Mr. Summers consulted his list. "Clyde Dunbar." he said. "That's right. He's broke his leg, hasn't he? Who's drawing for him?"
"Me. I guess," a woman said, and Mr. Summers turned to look at her. "Wife draws for her husband." Mr. Summers said. "Don't you have a grown boy to do it for you, Janey?" Although Mr. Summers and everyone else in the village knew the answer perfectly well, it was the business of the official of the lottery to ask such questions formally. Mr. Summers waited with an expression of polite interest while Mrs. Dunbar answered.
"Horace's not but sixteen vet." Mrs. Dunbar said regretfully. "Guess I gotta fill in for the old man this year."
"Right." Sr. Summers said. He made a note on the list he was holding. Then he asked, "Watson boy drawing this year?"
A tall boy in the crowd raised his hand. "Here," he said, "I’m drawing for my mother and me." He blinked his eyes nervously and ducked his head as several voices in the crowd said things like "Good fellow, Jack," and "Glad to see your mother's got a man to do it."
"Well," Mr. Summers said, "guess that's everyone. Old Man Warner make it?"
"Here," a voice said, and Mr. Summers nodded.
A sudden hush fell on the crowd as Mr. Summers cleared his throat and looked at the list. "All ready?" he called. "Now, I'll read the names--heads of families first--and the men come up and take a paper out of the box. Keep the paper folded in your hand without looking at it until everyone has had a turn. Everything clear?"
The people had done it so many times that they only half listened to the directions: most of them were quiet, wetting their lips, not looking around. Then Mr. Summers raised one hand high and said, "Adams." A man disengaged himself from the crowd and came forward. "Hi. Steve." Mr. Summers said, and Mr. Adams said, "Hi. Joe." They grinned at one another humorlessly and nervously. Then Mr. Adams reached into the black box and took out a folded paper. He held it firmly by one corner as he turned and went hastily back to his place in the crowd, where he stood a little apart from his family, not looking down at his hand.
"Allen." Mr. Summers said. "Anderson.... Bentham."
"Seems like there's no time at all between lotteries any more." Mrs. Delacroix said to Mrs. Graves in the back row.
"Seems like we got through with the last one only last week."
"Time sure goes fast--” Mrs. Graves said.
"There goes my old man." Mrs. Delacroix said. She held her breath while her husband went forward.
"Dunbar," Mr. Summers said, and Mrs. Dunbar went steadily to the box while one of the women said. "Go on. Janey," and another said, "There she goes."
"We're next." Mrs. Graves said. She watched while Mr. Graves came around from the side of the box, greeted Mr. Summers gravely and selected a slip of paper from the box. By now, all through the crowd there were men holding the small folded papers in their large hand, turning them over and over nervously Mrs. Dunbar and her two sons stood together, Mrs. Dunbar holding the slip of paper.
"Get up there, Bill," Mrs. Hutchinson said. and the people near her laughed.
"They do say," Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, "that over in the north village they're talking of giving up the lottery."
Old Man Warner snorted. "Pack of crazy fools," he said. "Listening to the young folks, nothing's good enough for them. Next thing you know, they'll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about 'Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.' First thing you know, we'd all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There's always been a lottery," he added petulantly. "Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody."
"Some places have already quit lotteries." Mrs. Adams said.
"Nothing but trouble in that," Old Man Warner said stoutly. "Pack of young fools."
"Martin." And Bobby Martin watched his father go forward. "Overdyke.... Percy."
"I wish they'd hurry," Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son. "I wish they'd hurry."
"They're almost through," her son said.
"You get ready to run tell Dad," Mrs. Dunbar said.
Mr. Summers called his own name and then stepped forward precisely and selected a slip from the box. Then he called, "Warner."
"Seventy-seventh year I been in the lottery," Old Man Warner said as he went through the crowd. "Seventy-seventh time."
"Watson" The tall boy came awkwardly through the crowd. Someone said, "Don't be nervous, Jack," and Mr. Summers said, "Take your time, son."
After that, there was a long pause, a breathless pause, until Mr. Summers, holding his slip of paper in the air, said, "All right, fellows." For a minute, no one moved, and then all the slips of paper were opened. Suddenly, all the women began to speak at once, saving. "Who is it?," "Who's got it?," "Is it the Dunbars?," "Is it the Watsons?" Then the voices began to say, "It's Hutchinson. It's Bill," "Bill Hutchinson's got it."
"Go tell your father," Mrs. Dunbar said to her older son.
People began to look around to see the Hutchinsons. Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand. Suddenly, Tessie Hutchinson shouted to Mr. Summers. "You didn't give him time enough to take any paper he wanted. I saw you. It wasn't fair!"
"Be a good sport, Tessie." Mrs. Delacroix called, and Mrs. Graves said, "All of us took the same chance."
"Shut up, Tessie," Bill Hutchinson said.
"Well, everyone," Mr. Summers said, "that was done pretty fast, and now we've got to be hurrying a little more to get done in time." He consulted his next list. "Bill," he said, "you draw for the Hutchinson family. You got any other households in the Hutchinsons?"
"There's Don and Eva," Mrs. Hutchinson yelled. "Make them take their chance!"
"Daughters draw with their husbands' families, Tessie," Mr. Summers said gently. "You know that as well as anyone else."
"It wasn't fair," Tessie said.
"I guess not, Joe." Bill Hutchinson said regretfully. "My daughter draws with her husband's family; that's only fair. And I've got no other family except the kids."
"Then, as far as drawing for families is concerned, it's you," Mr. Summers said in explanation, "and as far as drawing for households is concerned, that's you, too. Right?"
"Right," Bill Hutchinson said.
"How many kids, Bill?" Mr. Summers asked formally.
"Three," Bill Hutchinson said.
"There's Bill, Jr., and Nancy, and little Dave. And Tessie and me."
"All right, then," Mr. Summers said. "Harry, you got their tickets back?"
Mr. Graves nodded and held up the slips of paper. "Put them in the box, then," Mr. Summers directed. "Take Bill's and put it in."
"I think we ought to start over," Mrs. Hutchinson said, as quietly as she could. "I tell you it wasn't fair. You didn't give him time enough to choose. Everybody saw that."
Mr. Graves had selected the five slips and put them in the box. and he dropped all the papers but those onto the ground. where the breeze caught them and lifted them off.
"Listen, everybody," Mrs. Hutchinson was saying to the people around her.
"Ready, Bill?" Mr. Summers asked. and Bill Hutchinson, with one quick glance around at his wife and children. nodded.
"Remember," Mr. Summers said. "take the slips and keep them folded until each person has taken one. Harry, you help little Dave." Mr. Graves took the hand of the little boy, who came willingly with him up to the box. "Take a paper out of the box, Davy." Mr. Summers said. Davy put his hand into the box and laughed. "Take just one paper." Mr. Summers said. "Harry, you hold it for him." Mr. Graves took the child's hand and removed the folded paper from the tight fist and held it while little Dave stood next to him and looked up at him wonderingly.
"Nancy next," Mr. Summers said. Nancy was twelve, and her school friends breathed heavily as she went forward switching her skirt, and took a slip daintily from the box "Bill, Jr.," Mr. Summers said, and Billy, his face red and his feet overlarge, near knocked the box over as he got a paper out. "Tessie," Mr. Summers said. She hesitated for a minute, looking around defiantly. and then set her lips and went up to the box. She snatched a paper out and held it behind her.
"Bill," Mr. Summers said, and Bill Hutchinson reached into the box and felt around, bringing his hand out at last with the slip of paper in it.
The crowd was quiet. A girl whispered, "I hope it's not Nancy," and the sound of the whisper reached the edges of the crowd.
"It's not the way it used to be." Old Man Warner said clearly. "People ain't the way they used to be."
"All right," Mr. Summers said. "Open the papers. Harry, you open little Dave's."
Mr. Graves opened the slip of paper and there was a general sigh through the crowd as he held it up and everyone could see that it was blank. Nancy and Bill. Jr.. opened theirs at the same time. and both beamed and laughed. turning around to the crowd and holding their slips of paper above their heads.
"Tessie," Mr. Summers said. There was a pause, and then Mr. Summers looked at Bill Hutchinson, and Bill unfolded his paper and showed it. It was blank.
"It's Tessie," Mr. Summers said, and his voice was hushed. "Show us her paper. Bill."
Bill Hutchinson went over to his wife and forced the slip of paper out of her hand. It had a black spot on it, the black spot Mr. Summers had made the night before with the heavy pencil in the coal company office. Bill Hutchinson held it up, and there was a stir in the crowd.
"All right, folks." Mr. Summers said. "Let's finish quickly."
Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready; there were stones on the ground with the blowing scraps of paper that had come out of the box Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar. "Come on," she said. "Hurry up."
Mr. Dunbar had small stones in both hands, and she said. gasping for breath. "I can't run at all. You'll have to go ahead and I'll catch up with you."
The children had stones already. And someone gave little Davy Hutchinson few pebbles.
Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. "It isn't fair," she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, "Come on, come on, everyone." Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him.
"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
Gentlemen, Your Verdict
"Call Torpedoman Preece."
Lieutenant Paull bowed his head and covered his face with his hands. Though the courtroom was tense and silent around him, all he could see was the long compartment with fifteen men lying dead on the floor and five men staring in stricken silence. Though the proverbial pin could have been heard drop in the courtroom, he could still hear the ghastly sound as fifteen men died and their cups fell with a clatter at their feet.
"Tell the court what happened, in your own words, please."
"Well, sirs, it was like this. We was on this trial cruise, and was running at about ten fathoms off Steins Point, when the mine got us. . ,"
Lieutenant Paull tried to shut out the voice with his fingers in his ears. He had told that story first. Then Engineer Nordin had given his version, Speer had told his story next, followed by Jenvey. Now Preece was repeating it. Each story was the same yet a little different, and each sentence struck the lieutenant like the lash of a whip.
They had been running at ten fathoms at half speed when the explosion came. Probably it had been a drifted acoustic or magnetic mine, which should have rusted long before, for a contact one would have finished everything and everyone at once.
It had been just 1430 hours when the submarine shuddered to a blow that felt like the impact of Thor's hammer. Her tail rose, she rolled half over and started down in a steep, swift dive. Men fell or were flung in scrambling heaps. Lieutenant Paull, half stunned, found himself under four heavy men.
Almost instantly, it seemed Lieutenant Commander Oram’s voice rang over the uproar: "Stop engines. Blow one and two. Blow four and six."
The engines had been racing above top speed, and every man knew the reason. The blast had blown the propellers off. Now it was impossible to reverse and unless she were checked soon, the submarine's steel bow would crumple like tin as she rammed the bottom of the sea.
The noise of the engines died, and the bow began to rise as she rolled back to a level keel. But she still slid forward, deeper and deeper, from the initial impetus of the dive.
"Blow seven and eight. Hard arise with the bow planes. Hard aport," came Oram's voice again. "Steering gears jammed, sir," reported the coxswain.
At that moment the submarine struck. Except for those who were holding something, the whole crew went down again, this time sliding to the forward end of each compartment. But the speed of her downward rush had been checked, she was almost on an even keel, and the bottom was the tip of the sandbank that extended from Steins Point, not the rocky ocean floor.
“ . . . and he orders: Report your instruments." Preece's voice broke through the lieutenant's fog of memory.
They had reported. Bow planes immovable, apparently buried in sand. The radio was still usable, though damaged. The bow tanks could be neither blown nor flooded, their veins dogged with sand. At the stern the propellers were gone, the steering gear wrecked and the stern tanks flooded. All the hatches were hopelessly jammed. But by some miracle there was no leak in the ship itself.
The crew had come through fairly well. One man, thought stunned, was found to be dead, and two men had broken ribs. All had bruises and scrapes.
"Call the shore station," Oram ordered the radioman. "And let me know as soon as you have them, please."
"Shore station's calling us, sir," the radioman reported a second later.
"Our tender got some of the blast and reported we were probably hit."
“Right, I’ll talk to them,” and Oram took up the radio telephone.
"Yes, sir, must have been a mine. Our steering gear is wrecked, propellers have gone, and she dived into the sands off Steins Point. The stern tanks are flooded, and she won't move at all. None of our hatches, even the escape ones, can be opened. Torpedoman Kimmel is dead, but the rest are all right…We're about thirty fathoms down. We can be reached fairly easily and we've enough air for almost two days."
The earphones rattled faintly for a few seconds. . . Lieutenant Commander Oram's face paled.
"How soon can our second one be ready, sir?" he asked. There was a pause and the earphones rattled again. "How about planes then, sir?" There was a longer pause and the earphones sounded again for nearly half a minute. "I see, sir," he said, almost in a whisper. Then he laid the instrument down and for nearly a minute sat staring blindly in front of him.
"What's wrong, sir?" Lieutenant Paull asked at length.
Lieutenant Commander Oram faced him: "As you heard, our tender got some of the blast. It jammed her steering gear for a minute. This trip was to test the new stabilizers in a storm, like the one top-side. That storm just drifted our tender onto those rocks -remember them? -and she is burning like a torch….. The next nearest one is in dry dock, four hundred miles away, with half her plates off. She can't possibly get here for a week. . . Planes are grounded until the storm ends, and then they can't bring all the equipment they'll need to get us out. The shore station is doing all it can to find another ship."
Lieutenant Paull shuddered as he recalled his feelings. Their own tender wrecked and no other ship near meant rescue was impossible for five days, more like a week, and they had air for less than two days.
Then Oram roused himself. "Have a drink served our all round, please, Mr., Paull," he said. "And send four bottles forward to me. When they have had their drink, send the five married men to me."
In some bewilderment Lieutenant Paull obeyed.
"We was glad to get that drink, sirs," came Preece's voice, "An' when we'd downed it, we five reported to the Old Man -beg pardon, sirs -Cap'n Oram. He told us he had special duty for four of us, what could only be done by married men with families, and as far as he knew, there wasn't nothing to choose between us. Would we draw lots? We, did, an” Nordin, Speer, Jenvey and me got the marked ones….”
The voice faded out, and Lieutenant Paull tried to swallow the lump in his throat. The men had gone back to their comrades. Oram called the shore station again. "Any luck with the ships, sir?" he asked. There was a slight pause and a faint sound from the earphones. "That's absolutely certain, then, sir?" There was a longer pause, a few more sounds from the phones. "Thank you, sir. I'll call again-later."
"Assemble the men, please, Mr. Paull," he ordered. “I wish to say a few words to them."
When everyone was gathered, Lieutenant Commander Oram came in. He was carrying the four bottles of whisky and a tray with six white mugs; putting them down, he faced the crew.
"Men," he began, and hesitated. "Men,' have a few things to say and they're not all pleasant, nor easy. First, I'd like to say that' think you're the finest crew I've ever seen, let alone commanded… I know that you will take this news like men. You know what's happened. Well, we're stuck. And we're stuck until someone on top pulls the sub up, for all our hatches are stuck too. Now there is one very hard job to be done, but it's one that can be done only by men with families. You know them; they drew lots for the job just now and Preece, Nordin, Speer and Jenvey got it. I'll tell them what it is in a few minutes. I thank you for the quick, cheerful way you have carried out orders. . . That's all. Now all pass here with your mugs, married men last, and we'll drink a toast. No early sipping and no heeltaps and then we'll get on with our next job."
With a face white as death he poured a stiff drink in each man's cup. He gave Preece, Nordin, Speer and Jenvey four of the white mugs, which were already charged. He gave the fifth one to Lieutenant Paull and took the last one himself. He raised his cup.
"God save our country and King," he said and drank.
The men drank; and drinking, died. Like one man, they stiffened, choked and fell. The cups clattered on the floor.
Only Lieutenant Commander Oram, Lieutenant Paull and Preece, Nordin, Speer and Jenvey remained standing, white mugs in their hands. .
Then Oram spoke, his voice harsh and clipped.
"Men," he grated, "the shore station reports our tender is wrecked and on fire. The other one is in dry dock, as you know, and can’t get here for a week. They have contacted all the planes they can and the earliest any help can arrive is between six and seven days. We had air for less than two days for all of us. Now there will be air for all five of you for seven days. Obey my last orders. Mr. Paull, you will take command. Men, remain alive and take your orders from Mr. Paull. You can still serve your country. Your job is to wait."
" 'And why not you, sir?' whispers Nordin." Preece's voice again.
"I am going to join my crew as soon as I have made my report," was Oram's quiet answer.
He wrote out the report and signed it. He had the bodies placed in an end compartment. Then he called the shore station.
At that flat, unemotional voice: "I have arranged that Lieutenant Paull, Engineers Nordin and Jenvey, Torpedoman Preece and Cox-swain Speer will survive, by arranging the death of the fifteen others-" there was a horrified squawk from the earphones. He went on: "None of the others had the least idea of what I intended doing. I arranged that the men with families should survive. The entire responsibility is mine. . . No, sir, you won't be able to court-martial me. I could condemn my whole crew to death or sacrifice fifteen and save five, and am going to join the others. Good-bye, sir."
"Then six days later they reached us, sirs. God, we was glad."
"That is all," said the president of the court. He turned to the officers:
“Gentlemen, it is for you to decide, guilty or not guilty."
Lather And Nothing Else
translated from Hernando Tellez's story in Spanish, "Espuma y Nada Más"
He did not say hello when he came in. I was polishing my best razor over a piece of leather. And when I recognized him I started to shake. But he didn't notice. To hide it, I continued polishing the blade. I tested it with the tip of my thumb and turned to look at him against the light. At that moment he was taking off his belt with his bullet-holder where his holster was hanging. He hung it on one of the clothes pegs and on top of that, placed his vest. He turned all the way around to address me, and, undoing the knot of his tie, told me: "It’s hot as hell. Give me a shave." And he sat down in the chair. I figured he had about four days worth of growth. Four days on his most recent excursion in search of our men. His face appeared burnt, weather-beaten by the sun. I started to meticulously prepare the soap. I cut a few slices from the bar, dropping them into the container, I mixed it with a bit of warm water, and I began to mix it with the brush. The foam soon started to rise.
"The guys in the troop must have as much of a beard as I do." I continued blending the lather. "But we came out well, you know? We caught the top dogs. Some came to us dead and others of them are still alive. But soon, they’ll all be dead."
"How many did you get?" I asked.
"Fourteen. We had to go in deep to run into them. But now it's paying off. Not one of them, not a single one, will be spared." He leaned back in his chair upon seeing me with the brush in hand, overflowing with lather. I hadn't put on the sheet. I was definitely flustered. I took out a sheet from the cabinet and tied it around my customer’s neck. He didn't stop talking. He assumed that I was one of his party members. "The town must have learned a lesson from what happened the other day," he said.
"Yeah," I responded while finishing doing the knot around his dark neck, smelling of sweat.
"It was good, wasn't it?"
"Very," I answered, while picking up the brush. The man closed his eyes with an expression of fatigue and waited just like that for the cool caress of the soap. I'd never had him so close to me. The day when he ordered the town to line up on the patio of the schoolyard to watch the four rebels hanging there, I crossed his path for an instant. But the spectacle of the mutilated bodies prevented me from concentrating on the face of the man who planned the whole thing, the face I now held in my hands. It wasn't an unpleasant face, certainly. And the beard, while it made him look a bit older, didn't look bad on him. His name was Torres. Captain Torres. A man with a good imagination – who else would have thought of playing target practice with the naked bodies of the rebels before hanging them? I started to apply the first layer of lather. He kept his eyes closed. "I really feel like taking a nap for a bit," he said, "but I have a lot to do this afternoon."
I put down the brush and asked, pretending not to be interested: "Executions?"
"Something like that, but slower," he responded.
"All of them?"
"No. Barely a few."
I went back to lathering his beard. My hands were shaking again. The man couldn't have noticed and that was my advantage. But I had hoped that he wouldn't come. A lot of our men had probably seen him come in. And having the enemy on your turf makes you act a certain way. I had to shave this beard like I would any other, with caution, with care, like that of any other regular, making sure that I did not spill even one drop of blood from a single pore. Making sure that the little circles of his beard didn’t deflect the blade. Making sure that his skin remained clean, warm, polished, that when I passed the back of my hand over it, I would feel the surface without a single hair. Yes. I was a secret revolutionary, but I was still a barber of conscience, proud of the cleanliness of my profession. And this four-day-old beard would make for a job well done.
I took the razor, raised the two handles at an oblique angle, let the razor go, and started the task, working my way down on one of the sideburns. The blade responded perfectly. The hair proved tough and hard, not very long, but compact. His skin started appearing little by little. The razor sounded with its typical sound, and upon it fell lumps of soap mixed with bits of stubble. I paused to clean off the razor, took the leather strap again and started to re-sharpen the steel, because I am a barber who does things well. The man had kept his eyes closed, opened them, put one of his hands on top of the sheet, felt the part of his face where the soap started to dry off, and told me: "Come to the schoolyard this afternoon at six."
"Will it be the same as the other day?" I asked, horrified.
"Maybe even better," he responded.
"What do you think you’re going to do?"
“I don’t know yet. But we’ll have fun.” He leaned back again and closed his eyes. I approached him with the blade raised up. “Do you think you’re going to punish them all?” I ventured timidly.
"All of them."
The soap was drying on his face. I had to hurry. I looked into the mirror at the street. The same as always: the grocery store with two or three customers inside. Then I looked at the clock: two-thirty in the afternoon. The blade continued its way down his face. Now I worked my way down the other sideburn. A blue, compact beard. He'd let it grow like some poets or priests. It looked good on him. Many wouldn't have recognized him. All the better for him, I thought, as I tried to softly polish all of his neck area. Because there I definitely needed to handle the blade well, since the hair, though not so tough, was tangled up in little whirls. A curly beard. The tiny pores could open up, and release their pearl of blood. A good barber like me is rightly proud in never letting this occur to any client. And this one was a first-class client. How many of us had he ordered killed? How many of us had he ordered mutilated? No. It was better not to think about it. Torres didn't know that I was his enemy. He didn’t know, nor did anyone else. I treated it as a secret and told only a select few, precisely so that I could inform the revolutionaries about what Torres was doing in the town and what he was planning to do every time he went out to hunt down revolutionaries. It was going to be very hard, then, to explain that I had him in my hands and I let him go, peacefully, alive, and clean-shaven.
His beard had disappeared from his face almost completely. He seemed younger, with a few years off his face then he had when he’d come in. I suppose that this always happens with men who come in and out of barbershops. Under the stroke of my razor Torres became young again, because I am a good barber, the best in this town, if I do say so myself. A little bit more soap, here, under his chin, on his Adam’s apple, on that great big vein. God, it's hot! Torres must be sweating as much as I am. But he's not afraid. He's a calm man who doesn't even think of what he's going to have to do this afternoon with the prisoners. I, on the other hand, with razor in hand, polishing his skin again and again, avoiding spilling any blood from those pores, watching every stroke, can't think clearly. Damn the hour that he came in, because I am a revolutionary but not a murderer. And it would have been so easy to kill him. And he deserves it. Does he deserve it? No, hell no! No one deserves to be the sacrifice that turns other people into murderers. What good could come of that? None, of course. More and more people come and the first group kills the second who killed the third, and it continues on and on until the world is a sea of blood. I could slit his throat, just like that, bam! He wouldn't have time to groan in pain and since his eyes were closed, he wouldn't see the gleam of the razor or the gleam in my eyes. But I was shaking like a real murderer. A stream of blood would spill from his neck, onto the sheet, onto the chair, onto my hands, onto the ground. I would have to close the door. And the blood would continue on the floor, warm, permanent, unstoppable; onto the street, like a small scarlet brook. I am sure that with a strong stroke, a slicing cut, he wouldn’t feel any pain. He wouldn't suffer. But what would I do with the body? Where would I hide it? I’d have to run, leaving all of this, take cover far, far away. But they would follow me until they ran into me. "Captain Torres' murderer. He cut his throat while he was shaving him. What a coward." But, on the other hand: "He avenged us. A name to remember (my name here). He was a barber of the people. No one knew that he was fighting for our cause…" So what? Murderer or hero? My destiny depended all on this blade. I could tilt my hand a little more, leaning in the razor a little bit more, and plunge it in. His skin would give way like silk, like rubber, like leather. There's nothing more tender than human skin and the blood was always there, ready to spill out. A razor like this never fails you. It's my best razor. But I don't want to be a murderer; no, sir. You came so that I could shave you. And I'm doing the job honorably… I don’t want to stain myself with blood. Just lather, and nothing else. You are an executioner; I'm just a barber. And to each his own. That's the way it is. To each his own.
The beard had stayed clean, polished, and warm. The man sat up to look at himself in the mirror. He passed his hands over his skin and felt that it was fresh and renewed.
"Thanks," he said. He approached the clothes peg to look for his belt, his pistol, and his vest. I must have been very pale and I felt that my shirt was soaked with sweat. Torres finished adjusting his belt buckle, corrected the position of the pistol in his holster, and after mechanically smoothing out his hair, put on his vest. He took out some money from his pants pocket to pay me the cost of the services. He stopped in the doorway for a second, and turning to me, he said:
"They kept saying that you would kill me. I came to find out if it was true. But killing’s not easy. Believe me, I know." And he continued his way down the street.