The Other’s Crime
(El crimen del otro)
by Horacio Quiroga
The adventures that I am going to relate date from five years ago. Back then, I was just leaving my adolescence. Though not what they call high-strung, I had the highest degree of talent for gesticulation, at times carrying myself to extremes so absurd that I came to inspire real shock while I spoke. This imbalance between my ideas—the most natural possible—and my gestures—the wildest possible—amused my friends, but only those who were in on the secret of this unequalled eccentricity. My tics only went so far, and not always. My friend Fortunato came later onto the scene: he who is the subject of all I am about to tell.
Poe was at that time the only author that I read. That damned madman had come to dominate me completely; there was not a single book on my table that wasn’t one of his. My head was full of Poe, as if it had been emptied into the mold of “Ligeia”. “Ligeia!” How I adored that tale! Adored all of them, and intensely: Valdemar, who died seven months afterwards; Dupin, in search of the purloined letter; the L’Espanaye women, desperate on the fourth floor; Berenice, dead and betrayed; all, all were familiar to me. But above all, “The Cask of Amontillado” had seduced me like my own intimate affair: Montresor, “The Carnival”, “Fortunato”, were for me so familiar that I read this tale without naming the characters; and at the same time I envied Poe so much that I would have cut off his right hand with pleasure for writing that marvellous intrigue. Sitting at home, in the corner, I spent over four hours reading this story with a delight of which certainly a large part was an aversion to Fortunato. He dominated the entire tale, all of it, everything. Not a smile, not any impatience of Fortunato escaped my scrutiny. What did I not know about Fortunato and his deplorable disposition?
At the end of December I read to Fortunato some of Poe’s tales. He listened to me amicably, doubtless with attention, but miles away from my ardor. Hence the weariness that I suffered at the end, which couldn’t be compared to Fortunato’s, deprived for three hours of the enthusiasm that sustained me.
The coincidence of my friend bearing the same name as the hero of “The Cask of Amontillado” disappointed me at first, by the vulgarization of a name which had been purely literary; but soon I got used to calling him thus, and even overreached myself at times calling him for any trifle; so explicit did the name seem to me. If he didn’t know “The Cask” by heart, it certainly wasn’t because he hadn’t heard it until I got bored of reading it. At times in the heat of delirium I called him Montresor, Fortunato, Luchesi, any name from the story; and this produced an indescribable confusion that took him a long time to clear up.
It’s hard for me to remember just when Fortunato gave me proof of his strong literary enthusiasm. I believe that one can sensibly blame Poe for this unusual eagerness, whose consequences were to arouse my friend’s fervor to such a degree that my predilections were a cold disdain next to his fanaticism. How had Poe’s literature come to resonate in Fortunato’s rude intelligence? Looking back, I’m disposed to believe that the resistance of his feelings, a daily struggle in which his entire organism unconsciously came into play, was the overall cause of this disequilibrium, especially in one so deeply unstable as Fortunato.
On a beautiful summer evening he exposed this new aspect to my soul. We were on the roof, each sitting on cloth chairs. The hot and debilitating night favored our program of wandering meditation. The air smelled faintly of gas from the nearby powerstation. Beneath us, tranquil lamplight shone from open balconies. To the east, in the bay, colorful ships’ lanterns streamed over the dead water like a great fer-de-lance, luminous matches that the gentle waves bore up trembling, fixed and parallel in the distance, breaking up below the docks. The deep blue sea murmured on the shore. With our heads thrown back, our brows unworried, we dreamed beneath the vast star-filled sky, crossed only from side to side—in those nights of naval evolution—by a sudden streak of light from a patrolling cruiser.
“What a beautiful night!” murmured Fortunato. “It feels so unreal, gentle and meandering like the mouth of a child that hasn’t yet learned to kiss.”
He savored the phrase, closing his eyes.
“The special aspect of this night,” he went on, “so still, brings to my mind the hour in which Poe approached the altar and gave his hand to Lady Rowena Tremanion, she of the blue eyes and golden hair. Tremanion of Tremaine. The same phosphorescence in the sky, the same smell of gas…”
He pondered a moment. He turned his head towards me, without looking at me:
“Have you noticed that Poe uses the word ‘madness’ when his aspiration is greatest? In ‘Ligieia’ he uses it twelve times.”
I didn’t remember seeing it that often, and I would have noticed.
“Bah! It’s not a question of how many times he uses the word, but that on certain occasions, when he is going to rise to great heights, the phrase indicates that apologia for madness which brings with it the flight of poetry.”
As I didn’t clearly understand, I got to my feet, shrugging my shoulders. I began to walk around with my hands in my pockets. It wasn’t the only time that he had spoken to me like that. Just two days before he had tried to drag me into so novel an interpretation of “Four Beasts in One” that I had to watch him attentively, frighted by his dizzying trajectory. Surely he had come to feel deeply; but at what a dangerous cost!
Next to that frank enthusiasm, I felt old, critical and malicious. There was in him an overflow of gestures and expressions, a lyrical mind that no longer knew how to suppress the wild faces he made. He coined phrases. I think that our position could be summed up in the following situation: in a room where we were with Poe and his characters, I would talk to him, about them, while in the back Fortunato and the heroes of the extraordinary Tales would chat enthusiastically of Poe. When I understood what was happening I recovered my calm, while Fortunato continued his lyrical wandering without rhyme or reason:
“Some of Poe’s triumphs consist in awakening in us powerful old anxieties, giving a character of excessive importance to action, catching a random gesture in flight and deranging it insistently until perseverance succeeds in giving it a bizarre life.”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted him. “For a start, I disagree that Poe’s triumph consists in that. Second, I assume that action itself must be the madness of the intention to act…”
I waited full of curiosity for his response, watching him from the corner of my eye.
“I don’t know,” he said to me suddenly in a veiled voice as if the soft dew that was beginning to fall had filled his throat. “I have a dog that chases and barks at carriages for entire blocks. Like all dogs. Movement agitates them. It also surprises them that the carriages follow the horses of their own accord. I am sure that if they don’t behave and speak rationally with us, it’s due to a failure of the will. They feel, they think, but they can’t desire. I’m sure of this.”
Where would this fellow end up, who was so calm a month ago? His tense, white brow was directed at the sky. He spoke with sadness, so pure of imagination that I felt a half-hearted fever to egg him on. I sighed deeply.
“Oh, Fortunato!” And I opened my arms to the sea like an ancient Greek. I stayed that way for ten seconds, sure that it would provoke in him an infinite repetition of the same theme. Sure enough, he spoke, spoke with his heart in his mouth, spoke of all that awoke in that troubled head. Previously I said to him something about madness in general terms. I believe in the ability to miraculously escape into action during sleep.
“Sleep,” he picked up the thread and continued, “or rather, to dream while sleeping is a state of absolute madness. There is nothing of the conscious mind involved in the ability to present to oneself the opposite of what is being thought and to admit it as possible. The nervous tension that shatters nightmares has the same object as showers on the insane: the stream of water provokes a trauma that will lead to mental balance, while in dreams this same tension breaks, so to speak, the core of madness. Deep down the situation is the same: absolute disregard of opposition. Opposition is the other side of things. Of the two ways to see a thing, the madman or the dreamer only sees one: the affirmative or the negative. The sane ones first embrace probability, which is the awareness of the crazy side of things. On the other hand, the dreams of madmen are perfectly possible. And this same possibility is madness, for it gives the character of reality to this unconscious state: it doesn’t deny it, but believes it credible.”
“There are extremely curious cases. I know of a trial where the criminal faced the accusation of a witness of the deed. They asked: ‘You saw this thing?’ The witness answered: ‘Yes.’ Now then, the defense alleged that language being a convention, it was only possible that for the witness the word ‘yes’ expressed affirmation. The defense proposed that the jury examine the curious adaptation of the questions to the monosyllables of the witness. From this it followed that it would have been impossible for the witness to say ‘no’ (then it would not be an affirmation, which was the only thing under consideration, etc. etc.).”
Valiant Fortunato! He said all this without breathing, resolute with his words, with his assured eyes in which all this chaste nonsense burned like virgins. With my hands in my pockets, leaning against the balustrade, I watched him ponder. I observed him with keen attention, though with a slight vertigo from time to time. And I still believe that this attention was actually my concern for him.
Suddenly we raised our heads: the floodlight of a cruiser whipped across the sky and swept the sea, illuminating the bay like lightning. A flash shook the horizon again, and revealed in the distance, over the burning tin water, the motionless row of battleships.
Distracted, Fortunato remained a moment without speaking. But madness, once it has you in its grip, makes incredible dizzying pirouettes, and is as strong as love and death. He went on:
“Madness also has its conventional lies and its shyness. You will not deny that the insistence of the insane in proving their sanity is an instance of this. A writer says that reason is so difficult a thing that even to deny it requires reasoning. I don’t remember the saying exactly, it’s something like that. But the awareness of a reasonable reflection is only possible remembering that this might not be so. There would have to be comparison, which is not possible in the case of a solution–one of whose causal terms is admittedly insane. It would perhaps have to be a process of absolute ideas. But it’s good to remember that the insane never have problems or discoveries: they have ideas.”
He continued on in this vein with the knowledge of a teacher and the insight of memories just awakening:
“As for the shyness, it’s undeniable. I knew a deranged fellow, a captain’s son, whose irrationality was given to manifesting itself as chemical science. His relatives told me that he read an astonishing amount, wrote endless pages, implied, by monosyllables and vague confidences, that he had discovered the complete inefficacy of atomic theory (I think he referred especially to manganese oxides. The strange thing is that afterwards he spoke seriously of the inconsistencies of oxygen). This crank was perfectly sensible in everything else, closing himself to hostile interrogation through whistles, pssts, and curls of his moustache. He enjoyed the sad privilege of believing that whomever he spoke with wanted to steal his secret. Thus the prudent whistles that neither affirmed nor denied anything.”
“Now then, I was called one afternoon to discover what was still solid in that delirious reason. I confess that for a moment I could not get my bearings through his look of perfect sanity; his only mania then consisted of whistling and gently tugging at his moustache, poor thing. I talked to him about everything, demonstrated a crass ignorance to arouse his pride, ended up expounding a theory so extravagant and absurd that I doubted if such vehement lunacy would be understandable by a simple madman. I found nothing. He barely answered: ‘it’s true… there are things… psst… ideas… psst… psst…’ And here again were the ideas in full force.”
“Discouraged, I left him. It was impossible to get anything from that polite diplomat. But one day I returned with new strength, ready to hit my man’s secret at all costs. I spoke to him of everything again; I got nothing. At the end, at the verge of fatigue, I realized suddenly that during this and the previous conversation I had been too worked up with my own investigative efforts, and talked too much; the madman had observed this. I quieted down then and stopped chatting. The conversation ceased and I offered him a cigar. As he watched me lean over to take it, I smoothed my moustache as gently as I could. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and shook his head smiling. I looked away, attentive to his least movements. After a while he couldn’t help but look at me again, and I in turn smiled without releasing my moustache. The madman relaxed at last and told me all that I wanted to know.”
“I had been willing to go as far as the whistle; but the moustache was enough.”
The night continued peacefully. Noises were lost to isolated tremors, the distant rolling of a carriage, a church bell tolling the quarter hour, an “ahoy!” from the port. The constellations rose in the clear sky; we felt a bit cold. As Fortunato didn’t seem inclined to speak more, I raised my collar, rubbed my hands rapidly, and let fall like a stray bullet:
“He was perfectly insane.”
On the rooftop across the street, a black cat walked calmly on the parapet. Below us two people passed. The crisp noise on the cobblestones told me that they were crossing the street; they moved away talking in a low voice. I needed all this time to tear out of my head countless ideas that the most insignificant movement would have completely jumbled up. His fixed gaze left me. Fortunato receded, receded, until he turned into a mouse that I watched. The strident whistle of an express train corresponded exactly to this monstrous mouse. Through my head rolled an immense interval of time and a massive and dizzying gyration of worlds. Three flames flashed in front of my eyes, followed by three painful stabbing pains in my head. Finally I managed to shake it off and I turned:
“Ready to go?”
“Let’s go. It feels a bit cold to me.”
I’m sure he said this without ulterior motive; but this same lack of intent made me fear some unknown and horrible impropriety.
* * *
That night, alone and calm, I pondered at length. Fortunato had transformed me, this was true. But had he driven me to the vertigo which entangled me, leaving in the thorns, like guileless sheep, four or five rapid gestures that I immediately concealed? I don’t think so. Fortunato had changed, his brain was moving quickly. But from this to the recognition of my superiority there was a vast distance. This was the key point: I could do a thousand crazy things, let myself get carried away by a demonic logic of repeated gestures; seize a moment’s occurrence and twist it to create a strange truth; leave aside the slightest meaning of any vague movement in favor of what would have struck an excessively precise madman; all this and much more I could do. But in this unfolding of an excessive self-possession, shavings from a lathe that did not prevent an absolute centering, Fortunato could only see disorders of the mind motivated by this or that favorable environment, of which he believed himself the subtle manager.
A few days later I was convinced of this. We were out walking. From five o’clock we had traversed a long path; the Florida piers, the twists and turns through the alleys, the coal bridges, the University, the breakwaters that protected the calm waters of the port under construction, whose access card was granted to us thanks to the resurgence of friendship that in those days we had with a friend of ours–now in mourning–a student of engineering. Fortunato enjoyed a perfect stability that afternoon, with all his new eccentricities, yes, but as balanced as the inmate of any asylum. We talked about everything, our handkerchiefs in hand, damp with sweat. The orange expanse of the sea extended to the horizon; two or three asbestos-colored clouds wandered across the pure sky; the sun had just disappeared behind a greenish-black hill, encircling it with a golden aura.
Three crab-hunting boys passed along the wall. They argued for a while. Two continued on their way, leaping on the rocks with their pants rolled to their knees; the other stayed behind, throwing stones at the sea. After a while I exclaimed, as if in conclusion of some internal judgement provoked by such hunting:
“For example, it would be good if the crabs walked backwards to shorten distances. Undoubtably the way is shorter.”
I had no desire to derail him. I said this out of my habit of turning things around. And Fortunato made the regrettable error of turning my nonsense into the complete madness of an animal, and let himself reach corollaries that were both subtle and vain.
A week later Fortunato collapsed. The flame that trembled in him was extinguished, and of his unheard-of learning, of that beautiful delirious intellect that bore bitter and juicy fruit like a year-old plant, nothing remained but a distended and hollow mind, worn out in fifteen days, like that of a young woman who touched the roots of voluptuousness too soon. He still spoke, but he babbled nonsense. If he touched at times on a common thread, he would clutch at it with the unconscious, panicked grasp of a drowning man, so tightly that it would snap. In vain I tried to focus him, suddenly calling to his notice with an extended and hovering finger the edge of a piece of paper, a tiny stain on the ceiling, in order to wash away this unforgivable oblivion. He, who before had laughed frankly with me, feeling the absolute importance of these vaingloriously isolated details, was now so enraged by them that they lost that quality of beauty that was fleeting and private, only for us.
Put out of the running like this, his imbalance became more marked in the following days. I made a last effort to contain that decline by returning to Poe, the cause of his excesses. The stories passed: “Ligeia”, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Black Cat.” Once in a while, I glanced at him quickly; he devoured me constantly with his eyes, in the most saintly enthusiasm.
He felt absolutely nothing, I’m sure of it. I repeated the overly familiar readings, and I thought about that way of teaching bears to dance, which experienced circus people discuss; Fortunato perfectly fit the role of a hurdy-gurdy. Wanting to light a fire beneath him, I asked him, with a distracted attitude, while playing with the book in the air:
“What effect do you think a reading from Poe would have on a madman?”
Absurdly, he feared a trick in my antics with the book, on which he focused all his scrutiny.
“I don’t know.” And he repeated, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,” quite hotly.
“Nevertheless, they must enjoy it. Doesn’t this happen with all dramatic or singular narratives, those that show so much affinity to speculation? Probably seeing themselves represented in some Tell-Tale Heart completely liberates them.”
“Oh! No,” he sighed. “Likely they all believed they were authors of such tales. Or simply, they were afraid of remaining insane.” And he raised his hand to his brow, with a heroic spirit.
I stopped my juggling. He shot me a haughty glance from the corner of his eye. Intending to confront him, I moved away. I felt a sensation of cold attenuation on my ankles and neck; it felt as if my tie, already loose, had fallen off.
“But you’re crazy!” I shouted, getting up with open arms. “You’re crazy!” I yelled again. I would have shouted much more but I made a mistake and stuck out my entire tongue to one side. Faced with my attitude, he stood up almost at a jump, looked at me sideways, approached the table, looked at me again, moved two or three books, and went to press his face and hands against the window, drumming on the glass.
Meanwhile I was already calm and asked him something. Instead of answering me frankly, he turned his head slightly and watched me stealthily, albeit with fear, emboldened by his previous triumph. But he was mistaken. There was no longer time, he must have known it. His mind, striving for a moment of mad domineering intelligence, had cracked anew.
* * *
A month passed. Fortunato fell rapidly into madness, without the consolation that this was one of those spiritual annihilations in which the ability to speak transformed into a simple, bestial persecution of words. His insanity went straight to a gross idiocy, a black imbecility that walked every morning through the courtyards of the asylum, his face painted white. At times I worked hard to hasten the crisis, unburdening my heart of a great deal of intolerable sorrow; sitting on a chair at the extreme opposite of the room, letting fall between us the entirety of a long afternoon, sure that the twilight would come to a close without him seeing me. He made progress. At times he enjoyed playing dead, laughing about it until he cried. Two or three times he drooled. But in the last days of February he was seized by an irreparable muteness that I could not extract him from no matter how hard I tried. Then I found myself completely abandoned. Fortunato had left, and the fury of remaining alone made me think too much.
One night, I took his arm to go for a walk. I don’t know where were were going, but I was quite content to be able to guide him. I laughed slowly, shaking off his arm. He looked at me and laughed as well, content. A shop window, replete with masks for the imminent Carnival, reminded me that there was going to be a dance to celebrate the upcoming festivities, about which Fortunato’s sister-in-law had spoken to me with enthusiasm.
“And you, Fortunato, are you dressing up?”
“I understand we’re going together.”
“And what are you dressing up as?”
“Dressing up as?”
“I already know,” I added quickly, “as Fortunato.”
“Eh?” he burst out, enormously amused.
“Yes, like that.”
And I pulled him away from the window. I had found a solution to my inevitable solitude, so perfect that my fears about Fortunato blew away on the wind like a handkerchief. Fortunato was going to leave me? Fine. I would be left alone? Fine. Fortunato would not be at my complete disposal? Fine. And I tossed my head in the air, I was so happy. This solution could have some difficult points; but what charmed me about it was its perfect adaptation of a famous Italian intrigue, well known to me, certainly–and above all the great ability to carry it to its end. I followed at his side without bothering him. I strolled a little behind him, carefully avoiding the joints of the paving stones to walk properly: I felt so good.
Once in bed, I lay still, thinking with my eyes open. In effect, my idea was this: I would do with Fortunato what Poe had done with Fortunato. Get him drunk, bring him to the cellar on whatever pretext, laugh like a maniac… What a luminous idea I had! The costumes, the same names. And the devilish cap of bells… Above all, how easy! And finally a divine realization: since Fortunato was insane, there was no need to get him drunk… …………………………………………………………….……………………………………………………………..
At three in the morning I decided the hour had arrived. Fortunato, completely devoted to gallant dalliances, passed by with his arms about a stray Ophelia, whose train furiously swept the floor in time to their long wild steps.
My dance partner and I stopped in front of the couple.
“Well, my dear friend! Aren’t you happy in this atmosphere of boundless joy?”
“Yes, happy,” repeated Fortunato, overjoyed.
I put my hand to my heart:
“Happy like all of us!”
The group broke out laughing. My broad theatrical gesture had conquered them.
“Ophelia laughs, which is a good sign. The flowers are like fresh dew for your brow.” I took her hand and added: “Don’t you feel Pure Reason in my hand? You will see, you will heal, and you will be someone else in your loose, heavy, and melancholy white dress… And by the way, dear Fortunato: doesn’t this gallant Ophelia evoke for you a very similar creature in some ways? Observe in her air, her hair, the same ideal mouth, the same absurd desire to live only for life… Pardon me,” I concluded, turning: “these are things that Fortunato knows well.”
Fortunato looked at me, bewildered, furrowing his brow. I leaned into his ear and whispered, squeezing his hand:
“From ‘Ligeia’, my beloved ‘Ligeia’!”
“Oh yes, yes!” –and he left. He fled in a hurry, turning his head anxiously like dogs who hear barking and don’t know from where.
At three-thirty we left for home. I had a clear head and cold hands; Fortunato was not walking well. Suddenly he fell, and when I helped him he resisted, lying on his back. He was pale, looking anxiously in all directions. Drool fell from the corners of his drooping lips. Suddenly he burst out laughing. I let him be for a while, hoping it was a passing crisis from which he could still return.
But the moment had arrived; he was completely insane, mute and seated now, his eyes darting everywhere, crying his idiotic fear to the moonlight in fat, sorrowful and endless tears.
I picked him up as best as I could and we continued along the deserted street. He walked supported on my shoulder. His feet had turned inward.
I was taken aback. How would I find pleasure in the tender advice that I had planned to give him about the similarity to the other, while I showed him with prolix kindness my basement, my walls, my dampness, and my book of Poe; what would serve as the cask in question? There would be nothing, not even the terror at the end when he realized. My hope was that he would react, even one moment, to properly appreciate the lengths to which we had gone. But I went on all the same. In a certain street a couple passed by us, she so well dressed that Fortunato’s ancient soul had a belated thrill and he turned his head. It was the last time. Finally we arrived home. I opened the door noiselessly, held him up heroically with one arm while shutting the door with the other, crossed the two courtyards and descended into the basement. Fortunato watched everything attentively and wanted to remove his tailcoat, I don’t know why.
In the basement of the house there was a wide plastered hole; its intended purpose in some other timeline I completely ignore. It measured three feet deep by two in diameter. Some days before a great quantity of slabs and stone had been piled up in the corner, enough to hermetically seal the aperture. I guided Fortunato to the hole, and tried to make him descend. But when I took him by the waist he freed himself violently, looking at me with terror. Finally! Satisfied, I rubbed my hands together. My whole soul was with me again. I approached smiling and said in his ear, as gently as I could:
“It’s the pit, my dear Fortunato!”
He looked at me with suspicion, hiding his hands.
“It’s the pit…the pit, my dear friend!”
Then a pale light shone in his eyes. He took the candle from my hand, cautiously approached the hole, stretched his neck and tried to see the bottom. He returned, questioning.
“The pit!” I concluded, opening my arms. His gaze followed my gesture.
“Ah, no!” I laughed then, and demonstrated to him clearly, lowering my hands:
It was enough. That concrete idea: the pit, finally entered his completely isolated and pure mind. He made it his own: it was the pit. He was pleased at everything.
Almost nothing remained for me to do. I helped him descend, and brought my pseudo-cement nearer. After each action I held the candle closer and looked at him.
Fortunato was curled up, completely satisfied. Once he called to me: “Pssst!”
“Eh?” I leaned over. He raised a shrewd finger and lowered it perpendicularly. I understood and we smiled at each other with all our hearts.
Suddenly a memory came to me and I quickly raised my head:
“And the nitre?” Then I immediately held my tongue. In a moment I had piled on the slabs and stone. The pit was now sealed, and Fortunato inside. Then I sat down, put the candle to one side and like The Other, I waited.
Nothing. Would he notice?
And a muffled but horrible scream arose from the depths of the pit. I jumped, and then I understood, though wildly, Poe’s precaution in bringing his sword along. I searched desperately for a weapon; there was none. I grabbed the candle and slammed it against the ground. Another scream arose, even more horrible. In my turn I howled:
“For the love of God!”
Not even an echo. Yet another scream emerged and I fled at a sprint and on the street I ran for two blocks. Finally I stopped, my head buzzing.
Ah, of course! Fortunato was stuck in his hole and screaming. Would the sound leak out?… Surely at the last moment he recognized clearly what I was doing to him… How easily I walled him in! The pit… it was his passion. The other Fortunato had screamed also. Everyone screams because they realize too much. The curious thing is that some go more gently than the others.
I was walking with my head high, letting myself go into daydreams where Fortunato managed to get out of his hiding place and pursue me with equal cunning… How very open his smile is!… I stopped to listen… Bah! Whoever made the hole had done a good job. And afterwards the candle…
It was four o’clock. In the city center the last trains still swept by. The dead moon descended over the clear streets. From the houses which had been sleeping for who knows how long, from the closed windows, a vast silence fell. And I continued on, savoring these last adventures with such gusto that it would not be strange if I in my turn were also a bit mad.
From the collection El crimen del otro (The Other’s Crime), 1904.
Translated by Nina Zumel.