Extract from Part One
You might say that the death of the concierge marked the end of this period full of troubling signs, and the start of another, comparatively more difficult, in which the original sense of surprise gradually gave way to panic. Our fellow-citizens, as they now realized, had never thought that our little town might be a place particularly chosen as one where rats die in the sun and concierges perish from peculiar illnesses. From this point of view, indeed, they were mistaken and discovered that they had to adjust their ideas. If it had all stopped there, old habits would no doubt have regained the upper hand. But others of our fellow-citizens, who were not concierges or poor people, were to follow
M. Michel down that same path. This was where fear began – and with it, serious reflection.
However, before describing these new events in detail, the narrator feels that it would be helpful to give the views of another witness of the period which has just been described. Jean Tarrou, whom we have already met at the start of this account, had settled in Oran a few weeks earlier and had since been living in a large hotel in the centre. Apparently, he was well enough off to live on a private income. But even though the town had gradually become accustomed to him, no one could tell where he came from or why he was there. People ran into him in all the public places around town. Since the start of spring, he had been seen a lot on the beach, often swimming with obvious pleasure. Pleasant, always smiling, he seemed to enjoy all normal pleasures without being enslaved by them. As a matter of fact, the only habit he was known to have was that he regularly spent time with the Spanish dancers and musicians, of whom there are quite a few in our town.
In any case, his notebooks also constitute a sort of chronicle of that difficult period – though this is a very particular type of chronicle in that it seems to adopt a deliberate policy of insignificance. At first sight you might think that Tarrou had gone out of his way to view people and things through the large end of the telescope. In short, in the midst of this general confusion, he determined to become the historian of that which has no history. Of course one may deplore this bias and suspect that it derives from some dryness of heart. But the fact remains that, as a chronicle of the time, these notebooks can give us a mass of minor details which are none the less important. Indeed, their very oddity will prevent us from being too hasty in passing judgement on this interesting character.
The first notes that Jean Tarrou made date from his arrival in Oran. From the very start they exhibit a curious satisfaction at finding himself in a town that is so intrinsically ugly. Here we find a detailed description of the two bronze lions on the Hotel de Ville, and charitable reflections on the absence of trees, the unprepossessing houses and the ridiculous layout of the town. Tarrou also includes conversations overheard in trams or on the street, with no comment except a little later, in the case of one such exchange about a certain Camps. Tarrou had heard two tram conductors talking:
'You knew Camps, didn't you,' one of them said.
'Camps? A tall fellow with a black moustache?'
'That's the one. He was on points.'
'Yes, of course I did.'
'Well, he's dead.'
'Oh! When was that?'
'After the business with the rats.'
'Well, well. What was wrong with him?'
'I don't know; a temperature. And then, he wasn't strong. He had abscesses under his arms. He couldn't fight it off.'
'Even so, he seemed like anyone else.'
'No, he had a weak chest. And he played music for the choir. It wears you out, always blowing down a tube.'
'Ah, well,' the second man said. 'When you're ill, you shouldn't blow down a tube.'
After this brief dialogue Tarrou wondered why Camps had joined the choir when it was so obviously not in his interest, and what were the fundamental reasons that drove him to risk his life to take part in its Sunday marches.
Next, Tarrou seems to have been favourably impressed by a scene that was often played out on the balcony opposite his window. His room looked out over a small side-street where cats would sleep in the shade of the walls. But every day after lunch, at a time when the whole town was drowsing in the heat, a little old man would appear on the balcony on the other side of the street. With well-combed white hair, stern and upright in clothes of military cut, he would call to the cats with a 'puss, puss' that was at once soft and distant. Pale with sleep, the cats raised their eyes without at first bothering to move. The man would then tear up little pieces of paper above the street, and the creatures, attracted by this shower of white butterflies, came out into the middle of the road, raising enquiring paws towards the last pieces of paper. At this the little old man would spit on the cats, firmly and accurately. When one of his gobs of saliva hit the target he would laugh.
Finally, Tarrou seemed to have been entirely taken with the commercial character of a town whose appearance, life and even pleasures seemed to be dictated by considerations of trade. This peculiarity – that is the term he uses in his notebooks – was one that Tarrou approved of – one of his passages praising it even ends with the exclamation: 'At last!' These are the only places where the traveller's notes, in this period, seem to have something personal about them. However, it is hard to assess the meaning and the seriousness of such remarks. So after describing how the discovery of a dead rat had caused the cashier at the hotel to make a mistake in his bill, Tarrou added, in writing that was less clear than usual: 'Question: how can one manage not to lose time? Answer: experience it at its full length. Means: spend days in the dentist's waiting-room on an uncomfortable chair; live on one's balcony on a Sunday afternoon; listen to lectures in a language that one does not understand, choose the most roundabout and least convenient routes on the railway (and, naturally, travel standing up); queue at the box-office for theatres and so on and not take one's seat; etc.' But immediately after these extravagances of language or thought, the notebooks launch into a detailed description of the trams in our town, their gondola shape, their indeterminate colour and their customary dirty appearance, ending these observations with the expression: 'It's remarkable' – which explains nothing.
In any event, here is what Tarrou has to say about the business of the rats:
'Today, the little old man opposite is very put out. There are no more cats. They have vanished, excited by the dead rats that are being found in great numbers in the streets. In my opinion, it's not a matter of the cats eating the dead rats. I remember that mine hated them. Even so, they must be running around the cellars and the little old man is very put out. His hair is untidy and he seems less hale and hearty. You can see he is worried. After a while, he went back inside, but he did spit, once, into thin air.
'In town, a tram was stopped today because they found a dead rat on it; no one knew where it came from. Two or three women got off. The rat was thrown out and the tram drove away.
'In the hotel, the night porter, who is a reliable sort, told me that he was expecting something bad to come of all these rats. ''When the rats leave the ship . . .'' I replied that this was true in the case of ships, but that it had never been proved bad where towns were concerned. But he remains convinced. I asked him what misfortune he thought we should expect. He didn't know, since misfortune is impossible to predict – though he wouldn't be surprised if an earthquake were to fit the bill. I agreed that it was possible and he asked me if I were not worried.
' ''The only thing I'm interested in,'' I said, ''is to find inner peace.''
'He understood that perfectly.
'There is a rather interesting family in the hotel restaurant. The father is a tall, thin man, dressed in black, with a stiff collar. The crown of his head is bald and he has two tufts of grey hair on either side. His hard little round eyes, his slender nose and his straight mouth make him look like a well-trained owl. He is always the first to arrive at the door of the restaurant and stands back so that his wife can pass; she is as tiny as a black mouse, and walks in with a little boy and a little girl at her heels, dressed like performing dogs. Once the man has reached his table, he waits for his wife to sit down, then does so himself before the two poodles are allowed to perch on their chairs. He addresses his wife and children using the formal vous, and delivers himself of politely cutting remarks to the first and summary orders to his heirs:
' ''Nicole, you are behaving in a supremely unpleasant manner.''
'The little girl is about to burst into tears. That's what he wants.
'This morning the boy was very excited by the business of the rats. He wanted to say something during the meal.
' ''We don't talk about rats at table, Philippe. From now on, I forbid you to mention the word.''
' ''Your father is right,'' said the black mouse.
'The two poodles stuck their noses into their bowls and the owl thanked her with a nod that gave little away.
'Despite this good example, people around town are talking a great deal about the business of the rats. The newspaper has taken it up. The local news pages, usually very diverse, are now entirely occupied by a campaign against the town authorities: ''Are our town dignitaries aware of the danger that may arise from the rotting corpses of these rodents?'' The manager of the hotel cannot talk about anything else. But this is partly because he is angry about it. It seems unimaginable to him that rats should be discovered in the lift of a respectable hotel. To console him, I said: ''But everybody has the same thing.''
' ''Exactly,'' he replied. ''Now we are like everybody.''
'He was the one who mentioned to me about the first cases of that unusual infection that people are starting to worry about. One of his chambermaids has it.
' ''But it surely can't be catching,'' he insisted.
'I told him that it was all the same to me.
' ''Ah, I see! Monsieur is like me, a fatalist.''
'I had said nothing of the sort and in any case, I am not a fatalist. I told him as much . . .'
From here on Tarrou's notebooks start to give rather more details about this unknown illness which was already causing concern among the public. Noting that the little old man had finally got his cats back after the disappearance of the rats, and was patiently adjusting his aim, Tarrou added that one could already mention a dozen cases of this infection, in most of which it had proved fatal.
Finally, for the record, one may copy Tarrou's portrait of Dr Rieux. As far as the narrator can judge, it is quite accurate:
'Appears thirty-five years old. Medium height. Broad shouldered. Almost rectangular face. Dark, straight eyes, but protruding jaw. His strong nose is regular. Black hair, cut very short. The mouth is a bow with full lips, almost always tight shut. He looks rather like a Sicilian peasant with his bronzed skin, his black body hair and his clothes, which suit him, but are always in dark colours.
'He walks fast. He steps off the pavement without altering his pace, but two times out of three goes up onto the opposite pavement with a little jump. He is absent-minded when driving and often leaves his car's indicators up even after he has taken a bend. Never wears a hat. Looks as if he knows what is going on.'
Tarrou's figures were correct. Dr Rieux knew what was up. Once the concierge's body had been put in isolation, he telephoned Richard to ask him about these inguinal infections.
'I don't understand it,' Richard replied. 'Two deaths, one in forty-eight hours, the other in three days. I left the second of these one morning giving every appearance of being on the mend.'
'Let me know if you have any other cases,' said Rieux.
He called a few other doctors; and enquiring in this way he uncovered about twenty similar cases in a few days. Almost all had been fatal. So he asked Richard, the president of the Association of Doctors in Oran, if new patients could be isolated.
'There's nothing I can do,' Richard said. 'The measure would have to be taken by the Prefect. In any case, who told you there was any risk of infection?'
'Nothing tells me that there is, but the symptoms are disturbing.'
However, Richard felt that 'he was not qualified'. All he could do was to mention it to the authorities.
But even as they spoke, the weather was deteriorating. Great mists covered the sky the day after the death of the concierge. Brief but torrential rain storms swept across the town and these sudden showers were followed by thundery heat. Even the sea had lost its deep blue colour and, beneath the misty sky, took on the sheen of silver or iron, making it painful to look at. The humid heat of this spring made you long for the blazing sunshine of summer. A dull torpor lay over the town, crouching like a snail on its plateau, with only a small area fronting the sea. Amid its long roughcast walls, in the streets with their dusty windows and the dirty yellow trams, one felt something of a prisoner of the sky. Only Rieux's old patient overcame his asthma and enjoyed the weather.
'It bakes you,' he said. 'That's good for the tubes.'
It was indeed baking, but neither more nor less than a fever. The whole town had a high temperature: that, at least, was the feeling that haunted Dr Rieux on the morning when he went to the Rue Faidherbe to take part in the enquiry into Cottard's attempted suicide. But he thought this feeling was unreasonable. He attributed it to irritation and to all the things he had on his mind, deciding that he must quickly try to sort out his head.
When he arrived the commissioner was not yet there. Grand was waiting for him on the landing and they decided first of all to go into his place and leave the door open. The town official lived in a two-room flat, very sparsely furnished. All one could see was a white wooden shelf with two or three dictionaries on it and a blackboard on which one could still read the half-effaced inscription 'paths of flowers'. According to Grand, Cottard had had a good night. But that morning, he had woken up with a headache, unable to do anything. Grand himself seemed tired and nervous, pacing up and down, opening and closing a large folder on the table, full of handwritten pages.
Meanwhile, he was telling the doctor that he knew Cottard very little, but that he imagined he must have some small personal income. Cottard was an odd person. For a long time they had said nothing to one another apart from a greeting on the stairs.
'I've only had two conversations with him. A few days ago I dropped a box of chalks on the stairs when I was bringing it home. There were red chalks and blue ones. At that moment Cottard came out onto the landing and helped me to pick them up. He asked what I used these different coloured chalks for.'
So Grand explained that he was trying to revise a bit of Latin: since he left school he had forgotten much of it.
'Yes,' he told the doctor. 'People have assured me that it is useful for understanding French words.'
So he would write Latin words on his blackboard. He copied out in blue chalk the parts of the words that changed according to declension or conjugation and in red chalk the part that never changed.
'I don't know if Cottard understood really, but he seemed interested and asked if he could have a red chalk. I was a little surprised, but then . . . Of course, I couldn't guess that he would use it in that way.'
Rieux asked what had been the subject of the second conversation. But the commissioner arrived, with his secretary, wanting to take Grand's statement. The doctor noticed that Grand, when speaking of Cottard, always referred to him as 'the desperate man'. At one point he even used the expression 'fatal resolve'. They discussed his motives for wanting to commit suicide and Grand was fussy about the form of words. They finally agreed on 'personal sorrows'. The commissioner asked if there had been anything in Cottard's attitude which could have indicated what he called 'his fixed intent'.
'He knocked on my door yesterday,' Grand said, 'to ask me for matches. I gave him my box. He apologized, saying that as we were neighbours . . . Then he promised to give the box back. I told him to keep it.'
The commissioner asked the civil servant if Cottard had not seemed odd.
'What seemed odd to me was that he appeared to want to start a conversation. But I was working.'
Grand turned towards Rieux and added self-consciously:
Meanwhile, the commissioner wanted to see the patient. But Rieux thought that it would be best to prepare Cottard for the visit. When he went into the room, the man was sitting up in bed, wearing only a greyish vest. He turned towards the door with an anxious look on his face.
'It's the police, isn't it?'
'Yes,' Rieux said. 'But don't get upset. Just two or three questions as a formality and they'll leave you in peace.'
But Cottard answered that there was no point to it and that he did not like the police. Rieux gave a sign of impatience.
'I'm not keen on them myself. All you have to do is to answer their questions briefly and politely, and get it over with.'
Cottard said nothing and the doctor turned back to the door. But the little man was already calling for him and took his hands as he approached the bed.
'They can't harm a sick man, a man who hanged himself, can they, doctor?'
Rieux looked at him for a moment and finally assured him that there had never been any question of anything like that – apart from which, he was there to look after his patient. The man seemed to relax and Rieux went to fetch the commissioner.
Grand's testimony was read to Cottard and they asked if he could tell them precisely why he had done what he did. He simply replied, without looking at the commissioner, that 'personal sorrows was quite right'. The commissioner urged him to say if he intended to try again. Cottard said, emphatically, that he did not and that all he wanted was to be left in peace.
'I must point out', the commissioner said, with irritation in his voice, 'that just now it is you who are disturbing the peace of others.'
He asked the doctor if the matter was serious and Rieux said that he had no idea.
'It's the weather, that's all,' the commissioner concluded.
And no doubt it was the weather. Everything stuck to one's hands as the day went on and Rieux felt a growing sense of foreboding with every visit he made. That same day, on the outskirts of the town, one of the old man's neighbours, delirious, pressed his groin and started to vomit. His lymph nodes were larger than the concierge's. One of them had already begun to suppurate and soon burst open like a rotten fruit. When he got home Rieux phoned the depot for pharmaceutical products for the de´partement. His professional notes for the day in question merely state: 'Negative response.' And already he was being called out elsewhere to similar cases. Obviously, the abscesses had to be lanced. Two cuts with the scalpel in the form of a cross and the glands discharged a mixture of pus and blood. The patients bled, in agony. Dark patches appeared on the belly and the legs, a lymph node would cease to suppurate, then it swelled up again. More often than not, the patient died, with an appalling smell about him.
The press, which had had so much to say about the business of the rats, fell silent. This is because rats die in the street and people in their bedrooms; and newspapers are only concerned with the street. But the Prefecture and the Hotel de Ville were starting to wonder. As long as each doctor was not aware of more than two or three cases, no one thought to do anything. But, after all, someone only had to decide to do an addition, and the tally was disturbing. In barely a few days the number of fatal cases multiplied, and it was clear to those who were concerned with this curious illness that they were dealing with a real epidemic. This was when Castel, one of Rieux's colleagues, though much older, came to see him.
'Of course,' he said, 'you know what it is, Rieux, don't you?'
'I'm waiting for the results of the tests.'
'Well, I know. And I don't need tests. I spent part of my life working in China, and I saw a few cases in Paris, twenty years ago – though no one dared put a name to it at that time. Public opinion is sacred: no panic, above all no panic. Then, as a colleague told me: ''It's impossible, everyone knows it has vanished from the West.'' Yes, everyone knew that, except the dead. Come on, Rieux, you know as well as I do what it is.'
Rieux thought. Out of his study window he looked at the shoulder of the stony cliff that closed around the bay in the distance. Though the sky was blue it had a dull sheen that was softening as the afternoon went on.
'Yes, Castel,' he said. 'It's almost impossible to believe. But it appears that it must be the plague.'
Castel got up and went towards the door.
'You know what they'll tell us,' the old doctor said. ' ''It disappeared from temperate lands years ago.'' '
'What does it mean, ''disappeared''?' Rieux replied, shrugging his shoulders.
'Yes. And don't forget: in Paris, almost twenty years ago . . .'
'Fine. Let's hope that it won't be more serious now than it was then. But it's quite incredible.'