Michel remained silent for a long time. We did not speak either, for we each of us had a strange feeling of uneasiness. We felt, alas, that by telling his story, Michel had made his action more legitimate. Our not having known at what point to condemn it in the course of his long explanation seemed almost to make us his accomplices. We felt, as it were, involved. He finished his story without a quaver in his voice, without an inflection or a gesture to show that he was feeling any emotion whatever; he might have had a cynical pride in not appearing moved or a kind of shyness that made him afraid of arousing emotion in us by his tears, or he might not in fact have been moved. Even now I cannot guess in what proportions pride, strength, reserve, and want of feeling were combined in him. After a pause he went on:
"What frightens me, I admit, is that I am still very young. It seems to me sometimes that my real life has not begun. Take me away from here and give me some reason for living. I have none left. I have freed myself. That may be. But what does it signify? This objectless liberty is a burden to me. It is not, believe me, that I am tired of my crime —if you choose to call it that —but I must to myself that I have not overstepped my rights.
"When you knew me first, I had great stability of thought, and I know that that is what makes real men. I have it no longer. But I think it is the fault of this climate. Nothing more discouraging to thought than this persistent azure. Enjoyment here follows so closely upon desire that effort is impossible. Here, in the midst of splendor and earth, I feel the presence of happiness too close, the yielding to it too uniform. In the middle of the day, I go and lie down on my bed to while away the long dreary hours and their intolerable leisure.
"Look! I have here a number of white pebbles. I let them soak in the shade, then hold them in the hollow of my hand and wait until their soothing coolness is exhausted. Then I begin once more, changing the pebbles and putting back those that have lost their coolness to soak in the shade again... Time passes and the evening comes on... Take me away; I cannot move of myself. Something in my will is broken; I don't even know how I had the strength to leave El Kantara. Sometimes I am afraid that what I have suppressed will take vengeance on me. I should like to begin over again. I should like to get rid of the remains of my fortune; you see the walls here are still covered with it... I live for next to nothing in this place. A half-caste innkeeper prepares what little food I need. The boy who ran away at your approach brings it to me in the evening and morning, in exchange for a few sous and a caress or two. He turns shy with strangers, but with me he is as affectionate and faithful as a dog. His sister is an Ouled-Nai'l and in the winter goes back to Constantine to sell her body to the passers-by. She is very beautiful, and in the first weeks I sometimes allowed her to pass the night with me. But one morning, her brother, little Ali, surprised us together. He showed great annoyance and refused to come back for five days. And yet he knows perfectly well how and on what his sister lives; he used to speak of it before without the slightest embarrassment... Can he be jealous? Be that as it may, the little rascal has succeeded in his object; for, partly from distaste, partly because I was afraid of losing Ali. I have given the woman up since this incident. She has not taken offense; but every time I meet her, she laughs and declares that I prefer the boy to her. She makes out that it is he who keeps me here. Perhaps she is not altogether wrong..."
Much like that of Menalque? ↩︎
—André Gide, The Immoralist, p. 203