A sense of reality and o.., p.9
A Sense of Reality: And Other Stories, p.9Graham Greene
It was one of these poorer patients who stood now in the doctor’s study listening to his doom. The study had folding pitchpine doors leading to the living-room, which the patient had never seen. A heavy dark bookcase stood against the wall full of heavy dark books, all obviously medical in character (no one had ever seen the Herr Professor with any lighter literature, nor heard him give an opinion of even the most respected classic. Once questioned on Madame Bovary’s poisoning, he had professed complete ignorance of the book, and another time he had shown himself to be equally ignorant of Ibsen’s treatment of syphilis in Ghosts). The desk was as heavy and dark as the bookcase; it was only a desk as heavy which could have borne without cracking the massive bronze paperweight more than a foot high which represented Prometheus chained to his rock with a hovering eagle thrusting its beak into his liver. (Sometimes, when breaking the news to a patient with cirrhosis, the Professor had referred to his paperweight with dry humour.)
The patient wore a shabby-genteel suit of dark cloth; the cuffs had frayed and been repaired. He wore stout boots which had seen just as long a service, and through the open door in the hall behind him hung an overcoat and an umbrella, while a pair of goloshes stood in the steel trough under the umbrella, the snow not yet melted from their uppers. He was a man past fifty who had spent all his adult years behind the counter of a bank and by patient labour and courtesy he had risen to the position of second cashier. He would never be first cashier, for the first cashier was at least five years younger.
The Herr Professor had a short grey beard and he wore old-fashioned glasses, steel-rimmed, for his short sight. His rather hairy hands were scattered with grave-marks. As he seldom smiled one had very little opportunity to see his strong and perfect teeth. He said firmly, caressing Prometheus as he spoke, ‘I warned you when you first came that my treatment might have started too late—to arrest the disease. Now the smear-test shows …’
‘But, Herr Professor, you have been treating me all these months. No one knows about it. I can go on working at the bank. Can’t you continue to treat me a little longer?’
‘I would be breaking the law,’ the Herr Professor explained, making a motion as though his thumb and forefinger clutched a chalk. ‘Contagious cases must always go to the hospital.’
‘But you yourself, Herr Professor, have said that it is one of the most difficult of all diseases to catch.’
‘And yet you caught it.’
‘How? How?’ the patient asked himself with the weariness of a man who has confronted the same question time without mind.
‘Perhaps it was when you were working on the coast. There are many contacts in a port.’
‘I assume you are a man like other men.’
‘But that was seven years ago.’
‘One has known the disease to take ten years to develop.’
‘It will be the end of my work, Herr Professor. The bank will never take me back. My pension will be very small.’
‘You take an exaggerated view. After a certain period … Hansen’s disease is eventually curable.’
‘Why don’t you call it by its proper name?’
‘The International Congress decided five years ago to change the name.’
‘The world hasn’t changed the name, Herr Professor. If you send me to that hospital, everyone will know that I am a leper.’
‘I have no choice. But I assure you you will find it very comfortable. There is television, I believe, in every room, and a golf-course.’
The Herr Professor showed no impatience at all, unless the fact that he did not ask the patient to sit and stood himself, stiff and straight-backed behind Prometheus and the eagle, was a sign of it.
‘Herr Professor, I implore you. I will not breathe a word to a soul. You can treat me just as well as the hospital can. You’ve said yourself that the risk of contagion is very small, Herr Professor. I have my savings—they are not very great, but I will give them all …’
‘My dear sir, you must not try to bribe me. It is not only insulting, it is a gross error of taste. I am sorry. I must ask you to go now. My time is very much occupied.’
‘Herr Professor, you have no idea what it means to me. I lead a very simple life, but if a man is alone in the world he grows to love his habits. I go to a café by the lake every day at seven o’clock and stay there till eight. They all know me in the café. Sometimes I play a game of checkers. On Sunday I take the lake steamer to—’
‘Your habits will have to be interrupted for a year or two,’ the Herr Professor said sharply.
‘Interrupted? You say interrupted? But I can never go back. Never. Leprosy is a word—it isn’t a disease. They’ll never believe leprosy can be cured. You can’t cure a word.’
‘You will be getting a certificate signed by the hospital authorities,’ the Herr Professor said.
‘A certificate! I might just as well carry a bell.’
He moved to the door, the hall, his umbrella and the goloshes; the Herr Professor, with a sigh of relief which was almost inaudible beyond the room, seated himself at his desk. But again the patient had turned back. ‘Is it that you don’t trust me to keep quiet, Herr Professor?’
‘I have every belief, I can assure you, that you would keep quiet. For your own sake. But you cannot expect a doctor of my standing to break the law. A sensible and necessary law. If it had not been infringed somewhere by someone you would not be standing here today. Good-bye, Herr—’, but the patient had already closed the outer door and had begun to walk back amongst the rocks and firs towards the road, the bus-stop and the capital. The Herr Professor went to the window to make sure that he was truly gone and saw him among the snow-flakes which drifted lightly between the trees; he paused once and gesticulated with his hands as though a new argument had occurred to him which he was practising on a rock. Then he padded on and disappeared from sight.
The Herr Professor opened the sliding doors of the dining-room and made his accurate way to the sideboard, which was heavy like his desk. Instead of the Prometheus there stood on it a large silver flagon inscribed with the Herr Professor’s name and a date more than forty years past—an award for fencing—and beside it lay a large silver epergne, also inscribed, a present from the staff of the hospital on his retirement. The Herr Professor took a hard green apple and walked back to his study. He sat down at his desk again and his teeth went crunch, crunch, crunch.
Later that morning the Herr Professor received another caller, but this one arrived before the house in a Mercedes-Benz car and the Herr Professor went himself to the door to show him in.
‘Herr Colonel,’ he said as he pulled forward the only chair of any comfort to be found in his study, ‘this I hope is only a friendly call and not a professional one.’
‘I am never ill,’ the Colonel said with a look of irritated amusement at the very idea. ‘My blood-pressure is normal, my weight is what it should be, and my heart’s sound. I function like a machine. Indeed I find it difficult to believe that this machine need ever wear out. I have no worries, my nervous system is perfectly adjusted …’
‘Then I’m relieved to know, Herr Colonel, that this is a social call.’
‘The army,’ the Colonel went on, crossing his long slim legs encased in English tweed, ‘is the most healthy profession possible—naturally I mean in a neutral country like ours. The annual manoeuvres do one a world of good, brace the system, clean the blood …’
‘I wish I could recommend them to my patients.’
‘Oh, we can’t have sick men in the army.’ The Colonel added with a dry laugh, ‘We leave that to the warring nations. They can never have our efficiency.’
The Herr Professor offered the Colonel a cigar. The Colonel took a cutter from a little leather case and prepared the cigar. ‘You have met the Herr General?’ he asked.
‘On one or two occasions.’
‘He is celebrating his seventieth birthday tonight.’
‘Naturally. Now his friends—of whom I count myself the chief—have been arranging a very special occasion for him. You know, of course, his favourite hobby?’
‘I can’t say …’
‘The tables. For the last fifty years he has spent most of his leaves at Monte Carlo.’
‘He too must have a good nervous system.’
‘Of course. Now it occurred to his friends, since he cannot spend his birthday at Monte Carlo for reasons of a quite temporary indisposition, to bring, as it were, the tables to him.’
‘How can that be possible?’
‘Everything was satisfactorily arranged. A croupier from Cannes and two assistants. All the necessary equipment. One of my friends was to have lent us his house in the country. You understand that everything has to be very discreet because of our absurd laws. You would think the police on such an occasion would turn a blind eye, but among the higher officials there is a great jealousy of the army. I once heard the Commissioner remark—at a party to which I was surprised to see that he had been invited—that the only wars in which our country had ever been engaged were fought by his men.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘Oh, he was referring to crime. An absurd comparison. What has crime to do with war?’
The Herr Professor said, ‘You were telling me that everything had been satisfactorily arranged …?’
‘With the Herr General Director of the National Bank. But suddenly today he telephoned to say that a child—a girl as one might expect—had developed scarlatina. The household therefore is in quarantine.’
‘The Herr General will be disappointed.’
‘The Herr General knows nothing of all this. He understands that a party is being given in his honour in the country—that is all.’
‘And you come to me,’ the Herr Professor said, trying to hide mystification which he regarded as a professional weakness, ‘in case I can suggest …?’
‘I come to you, Herr Professor, quite simply to borrow your house for this evening. The problem can be reduced to very simple terms. The house has to be in the country—I have explained to you why. It must have a salon of a certain size—to receive the tables; we can hardly have less than three, since the guests will number about a hundred. And the owner of the house must naturally be acceptable to the Herr General. There are houses a great deal larger than yours that the General could not be expected to enter as a guest. We can hardly, in this case, requisition.’
‘I am honoured, of course, Herr Colonel, but …’
‘These doors slide back, I suppose, and can form a room sufficiently large …?’
‘Yes, but …’
‘Pardon me. You were saying?’
‘I had the impression that the party was for tonight?’
‘I don’t see how there could be time …’
‘A matter of logistics, Herr Professor. Leave logistics to the army.’ He took a notebook from his pocket and wrote down ‘lights’. He explained to the Herr Professor, ‘We shall have to hang chandeliers. A casino is unthinkable without chandeliers. May I see the other room, please?’
He paced it with his long tweed-clad legs. ‘It will make a fine salle privée with the doors folded back and the chandeliers substituted for these—forgive me for saying so—rather commonplace centre lights. Your furniture we can store upstairs? Of course we will bring our own chairs. This sideboard, however, can serve as a bar. I see you were a fencer in your time, Herr Professor?’
‘The Herr General used to be very keen on fencing. Now tell me, where do you think we could put the orchestra?’
‘My regiment will supply the musicians. If the worst came to the worst I suppose they could play on the stairs.’ He stood at the window of the salon, looking out at the wintry garden bounded by the dark wood of fir-trees. ‘Is that a summerhouse?’
‘The oriental touch is very suitable. If they played there, and if we left a window a little open, the music will surely carry faintly …’
‘The cold …’
‘You have a fine stove and the curtains are heavy.’
‘The summerhouse is altogether unheated.’
‘The men can wear their military overcoats. And then for a fiddler, you know, the exercise …’
‘And all this for tonight?’
The Herr Professor said, ‘I have never before violated the law,’ and then smiled a quick false smile to cover his failure of nerve.
‘You could hardly do so in a better cause,’ the Herr Colonel replied.
Long before dark the furniture-vans began to arrive. The chandeliers came first, with the wine-glasses, and remained crated in the hall until the electricians drove up, and then the waiters arrived simultaneously with the van that contained seventy-four small gilt chairs. The mover’s men had beer in the kitchen with the Herr Professor’s housekeeper, waiting for a lorry to turn up with the three roulette-tables. The roulette-wheels, the cloths and the boxes of plastic tokens, of varying colours and shapes according to value, were brought later in a smart private car with the three croupiers, serious men in black suits. The Herr Professor had never seen so many cars parked before his house. He felt a stranger, a guest, and lingered at his bedroom-window, afraid to go out on the stairs and meet the workmen. The long passage outside his room became littered with the furniture from below.
As the red winter sun sank in early afternoon below the black firs the cars began to multiply upon the drive. First a fleet of taxis arrived one behind the other, all bright yellow in colour like an amber chain, and out of these scrambled many burly men in military overcoats carrying musical instruments, which too often stuck in the doors and had to be extricated with care and difficulty: it was hard indeed to understand how the ’cello had ever fitted in—the neck came out first like a dressmaker’s dummy and then the shoulders proved too wide. The men in overcoats stood around holding violin-bows like rifles at the ready, and a small man with a triangle shouted advice. Presently they had all disappeared from the front of the house and discordant sounds of tuning came across the snow from the summerhouse built in oriental taste. Something broke in the passage outside, and the Herr Professor, looking out, saw that it was one of the central lamps criticized by the Herr Colonel, which had fallen off the occasional table on which it had been propped. The passage was nearly blocked by the heavy desk from the study, the glass-fronted bookcase and his three filing cabinets. The Herr Professor salvaged Prometheus and carried the bronze into his bedroom for safety, though it was the least fragile thing in all the house. There was a sound of hammers below and the Herr Colonel’s voice could be heard giving orders. The Herr Professor went back into his bedroom. He sat on the bed and read a little Schopenhauer to soothe himself.
It was some three-quarters of an hour later that the Herr Colonel found him there. He came briskly in, wearing regimental evening-dress, which made his legs thinner and longer than ever. ‘Zero hour approaches,’ he said, ‘and we are all but ready. You would not recognize your house, Herr Professor. It is quite transformed. The Herr General will feel himself in a sunnier and more liberal clime. The musicians will play a pot-pourri of Strauss and Offenbach with a little of Lehar, which the Herr General finds more easy to recognize. I’ve seen to it that suitable paintings hang on the walls. You will realize when you come down and see the salle privée that this has been no ordinary military exercise. A care for detail marks a good soldier. Tonight, Herr Professor, your house has become a casino, by the Mediterranean. I had thought of masking the trees in some way, but there was no way of getting rid of the snow which continues to fall.’
‘Astonishing,’ the Herr Professor said. ‘Quite astonishing.’ From the distant summerhouse he could hear a melody from La Belle Hélène, and on the drive outside cars continually braked. He fel
‘If you will excuse me,’ he said, ‘I will leave everything tonight in your hands. I hardly know the Herr General. I will have a sandwich quietly in my room.’
‘Quite impossible,’ the Herr Colonel said. ‘You are the host. By this time the Herr General knows your name, although of course he hardly expects the sight which will greet … Ah, the guests are now beginning to arrive. I asked them to come early so that by the time the Herr General puts in his appearance everything will be in full swing, the wheels turning, the stakes laid, the croupiers calling … the field of battle stretched before him, rouge et noir. Come, Herr Professor, a little flutter at the tables—it is time for the two of us to open the ball.’
The road was treacherous under the thin and new-fallen snow; the bus from the capital proceeded at a pace no smarter than a practice-runner who is unwilling to strain a muscle before the great race. The patient’s feet felt chilled even through his goloshes, or perhaps it was the cold of his errand, a fool’s errand. There was a lot of traffic on the road that night: yellow taxis frequently passed the bus, and small sports-cars full of young men in uniform or evening-dress, laughing or singing, and once at a particularly imperious siren—which might have been that of a police-car or an ambulance—the bus slithered awkwardly to a stop beside the blue heaps of snow on the margin, and a large Mercedes went by; in it the patient saw an old man sitting stiffly upright with a long grey moustache which might have dated from the neutrality of 1914, wearing an old-fashioned uniform with a fur hat on his head, pulled down over his ears.
The patient alighted at a halt beside the road; the moon was nearly full, but he still required the pocket-torch which he carried with him to show the way through the woods: no headlights of cars helped him now on the private drive to the Herr Professor’s house. As he walked through the loose snow at the edge of the road he tried to practise his final appeal. If that failed there was nothing for him but the hospital, unless he could summon enough courage to enter the icy water of the lake and never to return. He felt very little hope, and, for some reason that he could not understand, when he tried to visualize the Herr Professor at his desk—angry and impatient at this so late and unforeseen a visit—he could see only the half-spread wings of the bronze eagle and the jutting beak fastened in the intestines of the prisoner.
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