Author: Stefan Zweig.
Genre: Literature, fiction, novella.
Publication Date: 1922.
Summary: On a sweltering ocean-liner travelling from India to Europe a passenger tells his story—the tale of a doctor in the Dutch East Indies torn between his duty and the pull of his emotions; a tale of power and maddening desire, of pride, shame and a headlong flight into folly.
My rating: 8.5/10.
♥ But the atmosphere of the promenade deck was crowded and restless too, full of people chattering incessantly, hurrying up and down with the uneasy nervousness of those forced to be inactive in a confined space. The arch flirtatiousness of the women, the constant pacing up and down on the bottleneck of the deck as flocks of passengers surged past the deckchairs, always meeting the same faced again, were actually painful to me. I had seen a new world, I had taken in turbulent, confused images that raced wildly through my mind. Now I wanted leisure to think, to analyse and organise them, make sense of all that had impressed itself on my eyes, but there wasn't a moment of rest and peace to be had here on the corded deck. The lines of a book I was trying to read blurred as the fleeting shadows of the chattering passengers moved by. It was impossible to be alone with myself on the unshaded, busy thoroughfare of the deck of this ship.
♥ And as I looked above the steam from the funnel and the ghostly gleam of the spars, a magical brightness suddenly met my eyes. The sky was radiant, dark behind the white stars wheeling through it and yet radiant, as if a velvet curtain up there veiled a great light, and the twinkling stars were merely gaps and cracks through which that indescribable brightness shone. I had never before seen the sky as I saw it that night, glowing with such radiance, hard and steely blue, and yet light came sparkling, dripping, pouring, gushing down, falling from the moon and stars as if burning in some mysterious inner space. The white-painted outlines of the ship stood out bright against the velvety dark sea in the midnight, while all the detailed contours of the ropes and the yards dissolved in that flowing brilliance; the lights on the masts seemed to hang in space, with the round eye of the lookout post above them, earthly yellow stars amidst the shining stars of the sky.
And right above my head stood the magical constellation of the Southern Cross, hammered into the invisible void with shining diamond nails and seeming to hover, although only the ship was really moving, quivering slightly as it made its way up and down with heaving breast, up and down, a gigantic swimmer passing through the dark waves. I stood there looking up; I felt as if I were bathed by warm water falling from above, except that it was light washing over my hands, mild, white light pouring around my shoulders, my head, and seeming to permeate me entirely, for all at once everything sombre about me was brightly lit. I breathed freely, purely, and full of sudden delight I felt the air on my lips like a clear drink. It was soft, effervescent air carrying on it the aroma of fruits, the scent of distant islands, and making me feel slightly drunk. Now, for the first time since I had set foot on the ship's planks, I knew the blessed joy of reverie, and the other more sensual pleasure of abandoning my body, womanlike, so the softness surrounding me. I wanted to lie down and look up at the white hieroglyphs in the sky. But the loungers and deckchairs had been cleared away, and there was nowhere for me to rest and dream on the deserted promenade deck.
..I reached the ship's side and looked down over the keel to see the bows moving on into the blackness, while molten moonlight sprayed up, foaming, on both sides of their path. The ship kept rising and falling, rising and falling in the flowing dark, cutting through the black water as a plough cuts through soil, and in that sparkling interplay I felt all the torment of the conquered element and all the pleasures of earthly power. As I watched I lost all sense of time. Did I stand there for an hour, or was it only minutes? The vast cradle of the ship moving up and down rocked me away from time, and I felt only a pleasant weariness coming over me, a sensuous feeling. I wanted to sleep, to dream, yet I did not wish to leave this magic and go back down into my coffin. I instinctively felt around with my foot and found a coil of ropes. I sat down on it with my eyes closed yet no fully darkened, for above them, above me, that silver glow streamed on. Below me I felt the water rushing quietly on, above me the white torrent flowed by with inaudible resonance. And gradually the rushing sound passed into my blood; I was no longer conscious of myself, I didn't know if I heard my own breathing or the distant, throbbing heart of the ship, I myself was streaming, pouring away in the never-resting midnight world as it raced past.
♥ He took one, and I lit it. Once again his face moved away from the ship's black side, flickering in the light of the match, but now he turned it fully to me: his eyes behind his glasses looking inquiringly into my face, avidly and with demented force. A shudder passed through me. I could feel that this man wanted to speak, had to speak. And I knew that I must help him by saying nothing.
♥ Here I interrupted, begging him not to distress himself. He could tell me anything he liked, I said. Naturally I couldn't promise him anything, but to show willingness is a human duty. If you see someone in trouble, I added, of course it is your duty to help...
"Duty... to show willing... a duty to try to... so you too think it is a man's duty... yes, his duty to show himself willing to help. ..How far should we go with our help? Here are you, a stranger to me, and I'm a stranger to you, and I ask you not to mention seeing me... well, so you don't say anything, you do that duty... and now I ask you to talk to me because my own silence is killing me, and you say you are ready to listen. Good, but that's easy... suppose I were to ask you to take hold of me and throw me overboard, though, your willingness to help would be over. The duty has to end somewhere... it ends where we begin thinking of our own lives, our own responsibilities, it has to end somewhere, it has to end... or perhaps for doctors of all people, it ought not to end? Must a doctor always come to the rescue, be ready to help one and all, just because he has a diploma full of Latin words, must he really throw away his life and water down his own blood if some woman... if someone comes along wanting him to be noble, helpful, good? Yes, duty ends somewhere... it ends where no more can be done, that's where it ends..."
♥ "..I forgot all shame in that filthy isolation, that accursed country that eats the soul and sucks the marrow from a man's loins."
I must have made a movement of some kind, for he interrupted himself.
"Ah, you protest... oh, I understand, you are fascinated by India, by its temples and palm trees, all the romance of a two-month visit. Yes, the tropics are magical when you're travelling through them by rail, road or rickshaw: I felt just the same when I first arrived seven years ago. I had so many dreams, I was going to learn the language and read the sacred texts in the original, I was going to sturdy the diseases, do scientific work, explore the native psyche—as we would put it in European jargon—I was on a mission for humanity and civilisation. Everyone who comes here dreams the same dream. But then a man's strength ebbs away in this invisible hothouse, the fever strikes deep intro him—and we all get the fever, however much quinine we take—he becomes listless, indolent, flabby as a jellyfish. As a European, he is cut off from his true nature, so to speak, when he leaves the big cities for some wretched swamp-ridden station. Sooner or later we all succumb to our weaknesses, some drink, others smoke opium, other again brawl and act like brutes—some kind of folly comes over us all. We long for Europe, we dream of walking down a street again some day, sitting among white people in a well-lit room in a solidly built house, we dream of it year after year, and if a time does come when we could go on leave we're too listless to take the chance. A man knows he's been forgotten back at home, he's a stranger there, a shell in the sea, anyone can tread on him. So he stays, he degenerates and goes to the bad in these hot, humid jungles. It was a bad day when I sold my services to that filthy place..."
♥ "..so yes, there I was, sitting in my damned cobweb, I'd been crouching motionless as a spider in its web for months. It was just after the rainy season. Rain had poured down on the roof for weeks on end, not a human being had come along, no European, I'd been stuck there in the house day after day with my yellow-skinned women and my good whisky. I was feeling very "down" at the time, homesick for Europe. If I read a novel describing clean streets and white women my fingers began to tremble. I can't really describe the condition to you, but it's like a tropical disease, a raging, feverish, yet helpless nostalgia that sometimes comes over a man."
♥ "Proud and erect, she looked at me. For one moment she hesitated. Then she sat down and lifted her veil. I saw the kind of face I had feared to see, an impenetrable face, hard, controlled, a face of ageless beauty, a face with grey English eyes in which all seemed at peace, and yet behind which one could dream that all was passion. That narrow, compressed mouth gave nothing away if it didn't want to. For a moment we looked at each other—she commandingly and at the same time inquiringly, with such cold, steely cruelty that I couldn't hold her gaze, but instinctively looked away."
♥ "I trembled... I trembled with anger and... yes, with admiration again too. She had worked it all out, the sum and the manner of its payment, which would oblige me to leave this part of the world, she has assessed me and bought me before she even met me, had made arrangements for me in anticipation of getting her own way. I would have liked to strike her in the face, but as I stood there shaking—she too had risen to her feet—and I looked her straight in the eye, the sight of her closed mouth that refused to plead, her haughty brow that would not bend, a... a kind of violent desire overcame me. She must have felt something of it, for she raised her eyebrows as one would to dismiss a troublemaker; the hostility between us was suddenly in the open. I knew she hated me because she needed me, and I hated her because... well, because she would not plead. In that one single second of silence we spoke to each other honestly for the first time."
♥ "But this woman—I don't know if I can describe it to you—she had irritated and intrigued me from the moment when she had arrived, apparently just strolling casually in. Her provocative arrogance made me resist, she caused everything in me that was—how shall I put it?—everything in me that was suppressed, hidden, wicked, to oppose her. Playing the part of a great lady, meddling in matters of life and death with unapproachable aplomb... it drove me mad. And then.... well, after all, no woman gets pregnant just from playing golf. I knew, that is to say I reminded myself with terrible charity—and this is when my idea came to me—that this cool, haughty, cold woman, raising her eyebrows above her steely eyes if I so much as looked at her askance and parried her demands, had been rolling in bed with a man in the heat of passion two or three months ago, naked as an animal and perhaps groaning with desire, their bodies pressing as close as a pair of lips. That was the idea burning in my mind as she looked at me with such unapproachable coolness, proud as an English army officer... and then everything in me braced itself, I was possessed by the idea of humiliating her. From that moment on, I felt I could see her naked body through her dress... from that moment on I lived for nothing but the idea of taking her, forcing a groan from her hard lips, feeling this cold, arrogant woman a prey to desire like anyone else, as that other man had done, the man I didn't know. That... that's what I wanted to explain to you. Low as I had sunk, I had never before thought of exploiting such a situation as a doctor... and this time it wasn't desire, the rutting instinct, nothing sexual, I swear it wasn't, I can vouch for it... just a wish to break her pride, dominate her as a man. I think I told you that I have always been susceptible to proud and apparently cold women... and add to that the fact that I had lived here for seven years without sleeping with a white woman, and had met with no resistance... for the girls here, twittering, fragile little creatures who tremble with awe if a white man, a "master" takes them... they efface themselves in humility, they're always available, always at your service with their soft, gurgling laughter, but that submissive, slavish attitude in itself spoils the pleasure. So can you understand the shattering effect on me when a woman full of pride and hostility suddenly came along, reserved in every fibre of her being, glittering with mystery and at the same time carrying the burden of an earlier passion? When such a woman boldly enters the cage of a man like me, a lonely, starved, isolated brute of a man... well, that's what I wanted to tell you, just so that you'll understand the rest, what happened next. So, full of some kind of wicked greed, poisoned by the thought of her stripped naked, sensuous, submitting, I pulled myself together with pretended indifference. I said coolly, 'Twelve thousand guilders? No, I won't do it for that.'
..'What else can you want, then?'
Now I could control myself no longer. 'First, I want you to stop... stop speaking to me as if I were a tradesman and address me like a human being. And when you need help, I don't want to... to come straight out with your shameful offer of money, but to ask me... ask me to help you as one human being to another. I am not just a doctor, I don't spend all my time in consultations... I spend some of it in other ways too, and perhaps you have come at such a time.'
She says nothing for a moment, and then her lip curls very slightly, trembles, and she says quickly, 'Then if I were to ask you... would you do it?'
'You're trying to drive a bargain again—you won't ask me unless I promise first. You must ask me first—then I will give you an answer.'
She tosses her head like a defiant horse, and looks angrily at me.
'No, I will not ask you. I'd rather go to my ruin!'
At that anger seized upon me, red, senseless anger.
'Then if you won't ask, I will make my own demand. I don't think I have to put it crudely—you know what I want from you. And then—then I will help you.'
She stared at me for a moment. Then—oh, I can't, I cant tell you how terrible it was—then her features froze and she... she suddenly laughed, she laughed at me with unspeakable contempt in her face, contempt that was scattered all over me... and at the same time intoxicated me. That derisive laughter was like a sudden explosion, breaking out so abruptly and with such monstrous force behind it that I... yes, I could have sunk to the ground and kissed her feet. It lasted only a second... it was like lightning, and it had set my whole body on fire. Then she turned and went quickly to the door. I instinctively moved to follow her... to apologise, to beg her... well, my strength was entirely broken. She turned once more and said... no, ordered, 'Don't dare to follow me or try to track me down. You would regret it.'"
..I heard her downstairs, open the front door... I hard it all, and my whole will urged me to follow her... to... oh, I don't know what, to call her back, strike her, strangle her, but to follow her... to follow.
♥ "So far I hope I have made it easy for you to understand... but perhaps only because up to that point I still understood myself, and as a doctor I could diagnose my own condition. From now on, however, something began to work in me like a fever... I lost control. That's to say, I knew exactly how pointless everything I did was, but I had no power over myself any more... I no longer understood myself. I was merely racing forward, obsessed by my purpose.... No, wait. Perhaps I can make you understand it after all. Do you know what the expression "running amok" means?"
"'Running amok?' Yes, I think I do... a kind of intoxication affecting the Malays..."
"It's more than intoxication... it's madness, a sort of human rabies, an attack of murderous, pointless monomania that bears no comparison with ordinary alcohol poisoning. I've studied several cases myself during my time in the East—it's easy to be very wise and objective about other people—but I was never able to uncover the terrible secret of its origin. It may have something to do with the climate, the sultry, oppressive atmosphere that weighs on the nervous system like a storm until it suddenly breaks... well then, this is how it goes: a Malay, an ordinary, good-natured man, sits drinking his brew, impassive, indifferent, apathetic... just as I was sitting in my room... when suddenly he leaps to his feet, snatches his dagger and runs out into the street, going straight ahead of him, always straight ahead, with no idea of any destination. With his kris he strikes down anything that crosses his path, man or beast, and this murderous frenzy makes him even more deranged. He froths at the mouth as he runs, he howls like a lunatic... but he still runs and runs and runs, he doesn't look right, he doesn't look left, he just runs on screaming shrilly, brandishing his bloodstained kris as he forges straight ahead in that dreadful way. The people of the villages know that no power can halt a man running amok, so they shout warnings ahead when they see him coming—"Amok! Amok!"—and everyone flees... but he runs on without hearing, without seeing, striking down anything he meets... until he is either shot dead like a mad dog or collapses of his own accord, still frothing at the mouth...
I once saw a case from the window of my bungalow. It was a terrible sight, but it's only because I saw it that I can understand myself in those days... because I stormed off like that, just like that, obsessed in the same way, going straight ahead with that dreadful expression, seeing nothing to right or to left, following the woman. I don't remember exactly what I did, it all went at such breakneck speed, with such mindless haste... ..only an hour after that woman had entered my room, I had thrown my life away and was running amok, careering into empty space."
♥ "It was... wait, yes... it was like running after someone warning that a murderer is on the way, and that person thinks you are the murderer yourself and so runs on to ruin... She saw me only as a man running amok, pursuing her in order to humiliate her, but I... and this was the terrible absurdity of it.... I wasn't thinking of that any more at all. I was destroyed already, I just wanted to help her, do her a service. I would have committed murder, any crime, to help her... but she didn't understand that."
♥ "I am not a believing Christian any more... I don't believe in heaven or hell, and if hell does exist I am not afraid of it, for it can't be worse than those hours I passed between morning and evening.... think of a small room, hot in the sunlight, red-hot at blazing noon... a small room, just a desk and a chair and the bed... and nothing on the desk but a watch and a revolver, and sitting at the desk a man... a man who does nothing but stare at that desk and the second hand of his watch, a man who eats and drinks nothing, doesn't smoke, doesn't move, who only... listen to me... who only stares for three long hours at the white circle of the dial and the hand of the watch ticking as it goes around. That... that was how I spent the day, just waiting, waiting, waiting... but waiting like a man running amok, senselessly, like an animal, with that headlong, direct persistence."
♥ "..she had allowed some diabolical witch to murder her rather than trust me... because, deranged as I was, I hadn't spared her pride, I hadn't helped her at once... because she feared me more than she feared death."
♥ "Its light fell bright and yellow on the tortured body. And suddenly... suddenly all my emotions were gone, all my apathy, my anger, all the impure filth of my accumulated passion... I was nothing but a doctor now, a human being who could understand and feel and help. I had forgotten myself, I was fighting the horror of it with my senses alert and clear... I felt the naked body I had desired in my dreams only as... how can I put it?... as matter, an organism. I did not see her any more, only life defending itself against death, a human being bent double in dreadful agony. Her blood, her hot, holy blood streamed over my hands, but I felt no desire and no horror, I was only a doctor. I saw only her suffering..."
♥ "Like thieves, we carried her into her own room and closed the doors. And then... then the battle began, the long battle with death..."
.."Do you know, stranger, sitting here so casually in your deckchair, travelling at leisure around the world, do you know what it's like to watch someone dying? Have you ever been at a deathbed, have you seen the body contort, blue nails stabbing at the empty air while breath rattles in the dying throat, every limb fights back, every finger is braced against the terror of it, and the eye stares into horror for which there are no words? Have you ever experienced that, idle tourist that you are, you who call it a duty to help? As a doctor I've often seen it, seen it as... as a clinical case, a fact... I have studied it, so to speak—but I experienced it only once, there with her, I died with her that night... that dreadful night when I sat there racking my brains to think of something, some way to staunch the blood that kept on flowing, soothe the fever consuming her before my eyes, ward off death as it came closer and closer, and I couldn't keep it from her bed. Can you guess what it means to be a doctor, to know how to combat every illness—to feel the duty of helping, as you so sagely put it, and yet to sit helpless by a dying woman, knowing what is happening but powerless... just knowing the one terrible truth, that there is nothing you can do, although you would open every vein in your own body for her? Watching a beloved body bleed miserably to death in agonising pain, feeling a pulse that flutters and grows faint... ebbing away under your fingers. To be a doctor yet know of nothing, nothing, nothing you can do... just sitting there stammering out some kind of prayer like a little old lady in church, shaking your first in the face of a merciful god who you know doesn't exist... can you understand that? Can you understand it? There's just one thing I don't understand myself: how... how a man can manage not to die too at such moments, but wake from sleep the next morning, clean his teeth, put on a tie... go on living, when he has experienced what I felt as her breath failed, as the first human being for whom I was really wrestling, fighting, whom I wanted to keep alive with all the force of my being... as she slipped away from me to somewhere else, faster and faster, minute after minute, and my feverish brain could do nothing to keep that one woman alive..."
♥ "The boy sat there on the floor, quietly murmuring some kind of prayer, and when my eyes met his I saw... oh, I cannot describe it... I saw something so pleading, so... so grateful in his doglike gaze! And at the same time he raised his hands to me as if urging me to save her... to me, you understand, he raised his hands to me as if to a god... to me, the helpless weakling who knew the battle was lost, that I was as useless here as an ant scuttling over the floor. How that gaze tormented me, that fanatical, animal hope of what my art could do... I could have shouted at him, kicked him, it hurt so much... and yet I felt that we were both linked by our love for her... by the secret. A waiting animal, an apathetic tangle of limbs, he sat hunched up just behind me. The moment I asked for anything he leaped to his bare, silent feet and handed it to me, trembling... expectantly, as if that might help, might save her. I know he would have cut his veins to help her... she was that kind of woman, she had such power over people... and I... I didn't even have the power to save her from bleeding... oh, that night, that appalling night, an endless night spent between life and death!"
♥ "Never in my life before, I know, was I master of such concentrated energy, and I never shall be again. When you have lost everything, you fight desperately for the last that is left—and the last was her legacy to me, my obligation to keep her secret."
♥ "There must have been something menacing in my voice, something quite dangerous, because as I instinctively came closer he retreated with the obvious horror of... of someone fleeing form a man in frenzy running amok, wielding a kris."
.."Was I sick? Was I... was I mad? I accompanied him to the door and unlocked it—and it was with the last of my strength that I closed it again behind him. Then the tingling in my temples returned, everything swayed and went round before my eyes, and I collapsed beside her bed... just as a man running amok falls senseless at the end of his frenzied career, his nerves broken."
♥ "But I couldn't live any longer in that house or in that city... in that world where everything reminded me of her. I fled like a thief in the night, just to escape her, just to forget. But... as I came on board at night, it was midnight, my friend was with me... they... they were just hauling something up by crane, something rectangular and black... her coffin... do you hear that, her coffin? She has followed me here, just as I followed her... and I had to stand by and pretend to be a stranger, because he, her husband, was with it, it's going back to England with him. Perhaps he plans to have an autopsy carried out there... he has snatched her back, she's his again now, not ours, she no longer belongs to the two of us. But I am still here... I will go with her to the end... he will not, must not ever know about it. I will defend her secret against any attempt to... against this ruffian from whom she fled to her death. He will learn nothing, nothing... her secret is mine alone...
So now you understand... do you realise why I can't endure the company of human beings? I can't bear their laughter, to hear them flirting and mating... for her coffin is stored away down there in the hold, between bales of tea and Brazil nuts. I can't get at it, the hold is locked, but I'm aware of it with all my senses, I know it is there every second of the day... even if they play waltzes and tangos up here. It's stupid, the sea there washes over millions of dead, a corpse is rotting beneath every plot of ground on which we step... yet I can't bear it, I cannot bear it when they give fancy dress balls and laugh so lasciviously. I feel her dead presence, and I know what she wants. I know it, I still have a duty to do... I'm not finished yet, her secret is not quite safe, she won't let me go yet..."
♥ "..Please don't try to... the one human right one has left is to die as one wishes, and keep well away from any stranger's help."
Once more he gave me a derisive, indeed challenging look, but I felt that it was really only in shame, endless shame.
♥ On the night in question, they wrote, at a quiet time in order to avoid upsetting the passengers, the coffin of a distinguished lady from the Dutch colonies was to be moved from the ship to a boat, and it had just been let down the ship's side on a rope ladder in her husband's presence when something heavy fell from the deck above, carrying the coffin away into the sea, along with the man handling it and the woman's husband, who was helping them to hoist it down. One newspaper said that a madman had flung himself down the steps and onto the rope ladder; another stated that the ladder had broken of itself under too much weight. In any case, the shipping company had done all it could to cover up what exactly had happened. The handlers of the coffin and the dead woman's husband had been pulled out of the water and into boats, not without some difficulty, but the lead coffin itself sank straight to the bottom, and could not be retrieved. The brief mention in another report of the fact that, at the same time, the body of a man of about forty had been washed ashore in the harbour did not seem to be connected in the public mind with the romantic account of the accident. But as soon as I had read those few lines, I felt as if that white, moonlit face with its gleaming glasses were staring back at me again, in ghostly fashion, from behind the sheet of newsprint.