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Plays by August Strindberg, Second series
by August Strindberg
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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 innocence.

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 costume.

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 think.

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 trying.

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 now?

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

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 upside-down 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 punishment on this side.

MR. Y. How can you imagine anything of the kind?

MR. X. Wait until the sheriff gets here, and you'll learn all about it.

(MR. Y. gets up.)

ME. X. There you see! The first time I mentioned the sheriff, in connection with the storm, you wanted also to run away. And when a person has served out his time he doesn't care to visit an old mill every day just to look at a prison, or to stand by the window—in a word, you are at once punished and unpunished. And that's why it was so hard to make you out. [Pause.]

MR. Y. [Completely beaten] May I go now?

MR. X. Now you can go.

MR. Y. [Putting his things together] Are you angry at me?

MR. X. Yes—would you prefer me to pity you?

MR. Y. [Sulkily] Pity? Do you think you're any better than I?

MR. X. Of course I do, as I AM better than you. I am wiser, and I am less of a menace to prevailing property rights.

MR. Y. You think you are clever, but perhaps I am as clever as you. For the moment you have me checked, but in the next move I can mate you—all the same!

MR. X. [Looking hard at MR. Y.] So we have to have another bout! What kind of mischief are you up to now?

MR. Y. That's my secret.

MR. X. Just look at me—oh, you mean to write my wife an anonymous letter giving away MY secret!

MR. Y. Well, how are you going to prevent it? You don't dare to have me arrested. So you'll have to let me go. And when I am gone, I can do what I please.

MR. X. You devil! So you have found my vulnerable spot! Do you want to make a real murderer out of me?

MR. Y. That's more than you'll ever become—coward!

MR. X. There you see how different people are. You have a feeling that I cannot become guilty of the same kind of acts as you. And that gives you the upper hand. But suppose you forced me to treat you as I treated that coachman?

[He lifts his hand as if ready to hit MR. Y.]

MR. Y. [Staring MR. X. straight in the face] You can't! It's too much for one who couldn't save himself by means of the box over there.

ME. X. So you don't think I have taken anything out of the box?

MR. Y. You were too cowardly—just as you were too cowardly to tell your wife that she had married a murderer.

MR. X. You are a different man from what I took you to be—if stronger or weaker, I cannot tell—if more criminal or less, that's none of my concern—but decidedly more stupid; that much is quite plain. For stupid you were when you wrote another person's name instead of begging—as I have had to do. Stupid you were when you stole things out of my book—could you not guess that I might have read my own books? Stupid you were when you thought yourself cleverer than me, and when you thought that I could be lured into becoming a thief. Stupid you were when you thought balance could be restored by giving the world two thieves instead of one. But most stupid of all you were when you thought I had failed to provide a safe corner-stone for my happiness. Go ahead and write my wife as many anonymous letters as you please about her husband having killed a man—she knew that long before we were married!— Have you had enough now?

MR. Y. May I go?

MR. X. Now you have to go! And at once! I'll send your things after you!—Get out of here!

(Curtain.)

THE END

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