Albert Camus – The Stranger (Part 1, Chapter 5)
Raymond rang me up at the office. He said that a friend of his—to whom he’d spoken about me—invited me to spend next Sunday at his little seaside bungalow just outside Algiers. I told him I’d have been delighted; only I had promised to spend Sunday with a girl. Raymond promptly replied that she could come, too. In fact, his friend’s wife would be very pleased not to be the only woman in a party of men.
I’d have liked to hang up at once, as my employer doesn’t approve of my using the office phone for private calls. But Raymond asked me to hold on; he had something else to tell me, and that was why he’d rung me up, though he could have waited till the evening to pass on the invitation.
“It’s like this,” he said. “I’ve been shadowed all the morning by some Arabs. One of them’s the brother of that girl I had the row with. If you see him hanging round the house when you come back, pass me the word.”
I promised to do so.
Just then my employer sent for me. For a moment I felt uneasy, as I expected he was going to tell me to stick to my work and not waste time chattering with friends over the phone. However, it was nothing of the kind. He wanted to discuss a project he had in view, though so far he’d come to no decision. It was to open a branch at Paris, so as to be able to deal with the big companies on the spot, without postal delays, and he wanted to know if I’d like a post there.
“You’re a young man,” he said, “and I’m pretty sure you’d enjoy living in Paris. And, of course, you could travel about France for some months in the year.”
I told him I was quite prepared to go; but really I didn’t care much one way or the other.
He then asked if a “change of life,” as he called it, didn’t appeal to me, and I answered that one never changed his way of life; one life was as good as another, and my present one suited me quite well.
At this he looked rather hurt, and told me that I always shilly-shallied, and that I lacked ambition—a grave defect, to his mind, when one was in business.
I returned to my work. I’d have preferred not to vex him, but I saw no reason for “changing my life.” By and large it wasn’t an unpleasant one. As a student I’d had plenty of ambition of the kind he meant. But, when I had to drop my studies, I very soon realized all that was pretty futile.
Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she was keen on it, we’d get married.
Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question meant nothing or next to nothing—but I supposed I didn’t.
“If that’s how you feel,” she said, “why marry me?”
I explained that it had no importance really, but, if it would give her pleasure, we could get married right away. I pointed out that, anyhow, the suggestion came from her; as for me, I’d merely said, “Yes.”
Then she remarked that marriage was a serious matter.
To which I answered: “No.”
She kept silent after that, staring at me in a curious way. Then she asked: “Suppose another girl had asked you to marry her—I mean, a girl you liked in the same way as you like me—would you have said ‘Yes’ to her, too?”
Then she said she wondered if she really loved me or not. I, of course, couldn’t enlighten her as to that. And, after another silence, she murmured something about my being “a queer fellow.” “And I daresay that’s why I love you,” she added. “But maybe that’s why one day I’ll come to hate you.”
To which I had nothing to say, so I said nothing.
She thought for a bit, then started smiling and, taking my arm, repeated that she was in earnest; she really wanted to marry me.
“All right,” I answered. “We’ll get married whenever you like.” I then mentioned the proposal made by my employer, and Marie said she’d love to go to Paris.
When I told her I’d lived in Paris for a while, she asked me what it was like.
“A dingy sort of town, to my mind. Masses of pigeons and dark courtyards. And the people have washed-out, white faces.”
Then we went for a walk all the way across the town by the main streets. The women were good-lookers, and I asked Marie if she, too, noticed this. She said, “Yes,” and that she saw what I meant. After that we said nothing for some minutes. However, as I didn’t want her to leave me, I suggested we should dine together at Céleste’s. She’d have loved to dine with me, she said, only she was booked up for the evening. We were near my place, and I said, “Au revoir, then.”
She looked me in the eyes.
“Don’t you want to know what I’m doing this evening?”
I did want to know, but I hadn’t thought of asking her, and I guessed she was making a grievance of it. I must have looked embarrassed, for suddenly she started laughing and bent toward me, pouting her lips for a kiss.
I went by myself to Céleste’s. When I had just started my dinner an odd-looking little woman came in and asked if she might sit at my table. Of course she might. She had a chubby face like a ripe apple, bright eyes, and moved in a curiously jerky way, as if she were on wires. After taking off her closefitting jacket she sat down and started studying the bill of fare with a sort of rapt attention. Then she called Céleste and gave her order, very fast but quite distinctly; one didn’t lose a word. While waiting for the hors d’oeuvre she opened her bag, took out a slip of paper and a pencil, and added up the bill in advance. Diving into her bag again, she produced a purse and took from it the exact sum, plus a small tip, and placed it on the cloth in front of her.
Just then the waiter brought the hors d’oeuvre, which she proceeded to wolf down voraciously. While waiting for the next course, she produced another pencil, this time a blue one, from her bag, and the radio magazine for the coming week, and started making ticks against almost all the items of the daily programs. There were a dozen pages in the magazine, and she continued studying them closely throughout the meal. When I’d finished mine she was still ticking off items with the same meticulous attention. Then she rose, put on her jacket again with the same abrupt, robot-like gestures, and walked briskly out of the restaurant.
Having nothing better to do, I followed her for a short distance. Keeping on the curb of the pavement, she walked straight ahead, never swerving or looking back, and it was extraordinary how fast she covered the ground, considering her smallness. In fact, the pace was too much for me, and I soon lost sight of her and turned back homeward. For a moment the “little robot” (as I thought of her) had much impressed me, but I soon forgot about her.
As I was turning in at my door I ran into old Salamano. I asked him into my room, and he informed me that his dog was definitely lost. He’d been to the pound to inquire, but it wasn’t there, and the staff told him it had probably been run over. When he asked them whether it was any use inquiring about it at the police station, they said the police had more important things to attend to than keeping records of stray dogs run over in the streets. I suggested he should get another dog, but, reasonably enough, he pointed out that he’d become used to this one, and it wouldn’t be the same thing.
I was seated on my bed, with my legs up, and Salamano on a chair beside the table, facing me, his hands spread on his knees. He had kept on his battered felt hat and was mumbling away behind his draggled yellowish mustache. I found him rather boring, but I had nothing to do and didn’t feel sleepy. So, to keep the conversation going, I asked some questions about his dog—how long he had had it and so forth. He told me he had got it soon after his wife’s death. He’d married rather late in life. When a young man, he wanted to go on the stage; during his military service he’d often played in the regimental theatricals and acted rather well, so everybody said. However, finally, he had taken a job in the railway, and he didn’t regret it, as now he had a small pension. He and his wife had never hit it off very well, but they’d got used to each other, and when she died he felt lonely. One of his mates on the railway whose bitch had just had pups had offered him one, and he had taken it, as a companion. He’d had to feed it from the bottle at first. But, as a dog’s life is shorter than a man’s, they’d grown old together, so to speak.
“He was a cantankerous brute,” Salamano said. “Now and then we had some proper set-tos, he and I. But he was a good mutt all the same.”
I said he looked well bred, and that evidently pleased the old man.
“Ah, but you should have seen him before his illness!” he said. “He had a wonderful coat; in fact, that was his best point, really. I tried hard to cure him; every mortal night after he got that skin disease I rubbed an ointment in. But his real trouble was old age, and there’s no curing that.”
Just then I yawned, and the old man said he’d better make a move. I told him he could stay, and that I was sorry about what had happened to his dog. He thanked me, and mentioned that my mother had been very fond of his dog. He referred to her as “your poor mother,” and was afraid I must be feeling her death terribly. When I said nothing he added hastily and with a rather embarrassed air that some of the people in the street said nasty things about me because I’d sent my mother to the Home. But he, of course, knew better; he knew how devoted to my mother I had always been.
I answered—why, I still don’t know—that it surprised me to learn I’d produced such a bad impression. As I couldn’t afford to keep her here, it seemed the obvious thing to do, to send her to a home. “In any case,” I added, “for years she’d never had a word to say to me, and I could see she was moping, with no one to talk to.”
“Yes,” he said, “and at a home one makes friends, anyhow.”
He got up, saying it was high time for him to be in bed, and added that life was going to be a bit of a problem for him, under the new conditions. For the first time since I’d known him he held out his hand to me—rather shyly, I thought—and I could feel the scales on his skin. Just as he was going out of the door, he turned and, smiling a little, said:
“Let’s hope the dogs won’t bark again tonight. I always think it’s mine I hear…”
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