He was buried in January, in an icy fog, at eight in the morning—about the time when they shoot those condemned to death.
There were quite a few people there—from society, from his former world—who followed the hearse while talking of business. The hearse of a poor man, badly chipped, rattled over the gleaming cobblestones.
Imagine that long journey to the cemetery at eight o’clock, in the fog. Just behind the society people followed a group in rags, beggars, people out of work, like the condemned shown in old pictures. Satchels on their shoulders, bundles badly tied up in greasy paper under their arms. People who pick up the garbage. There was a muscular man with a beard, a sack full of holes on his shoulder. Out of the holes fell some dirty rags and the lid of an old enamel coffee pot.
The society folk, vaguely upset, even slightly scandalized, would turn around from time to time to see if the others were still following. Hardly an ordinary burial.
He had been a magistrate his whole life. A judge from top to bottom—a man completely identified with his function. A dignified attitude at every moment, silent and austere, with a hatchet face, a pointed gray goatee, and gray hair cut short. Rigid, a straightforward glance, slightly halting gestures.
A life with no story. He did his job, said what had to be said, and applied the law as anyone else might have. Never emotional, never paradoxical. Did he even see the faces of the accused who stood before him? Sometimes he dozed off while the lawyers went on shouting.
Five minutes’ walk, always with an umbrella on his arm, in every kind of weather. Streetcar. The court house. Streetcar. Five minutes’ walk the other way with his umbrella, without looking either right or left. Morning, noon, and night. Home. Meals in silence. The case files. Sunday afternoon a game of bridge. A month’s vacation in August at Saint-Aulaire, fishing with his lawyer son. By the beginning of September the judge was back at it, with his resolute manner, his neat little beard, taking hurried little steps, returning to his habits as to a fortress.
But one day, retirement came: the judge no longer judged. It was shortly after this that everything started. After an absence of perhaps two weeks…a new man appeared. Perhaps we had never really looked at him before. It was as if the soul of an adolescent had been sleeping for forty years under the shell. In our little town this new situation caused astonishment, even scandal.
First he went out without an umbrella. Then we saw him perched on an old brown bicycle that rattled badly—it had been left behind by his daughter when she married a big lawyer from Ploërmel. He rode over to St. Francis House, a refuge for the unemployed, and to Sainte-Zite, a shelter for “lost” young women. From the prison to the center for delinquent children.... What was he doing there? Why was he wandering around the bad parts of our little town? No one cared.
Until the day he announced to his wife: “We need a maid. People have told me of a young woman who has been in the hospital—Maria, a girl from Langourla. She’s been a farm servant, with no hope for the future, for a husband or a home. She’s expecting a baby. Of course the boy involved isn’t taking any responsibility—neither is the family. I’m taking them in,” the judge said.
His wife sighed, but she was a humble woman who secretly admired her judge. We had no idea just how admirable he was. But maybe she knew all along? Anyway, the young woman came, and a little later the child. The judge was godfather. They called the boy Pascal because he arrived at Easter, with the spring. So everyone went around murmuring, chattering, whispering—that all this was admirable, of course, but that there were things one didn’t do. Besides, it was a mistake to bring poor people into one’s home before one had even seen them. His wife had a right to peace in her old age. Was he trying to teach them all a lesson? On top of that, he was wasting the inheritance of his own children. Little by little the judge began to lose his friends. One day the canon was the only one who came for bridge. But by that time, the judge was no longer thinking about bridge.
It was then that the parade began. The house was massive, reassuring in its drabness, built of grey stone, and located in the most elegant neighborhood in town. Its massive doors had bright copper handles. Thick curtains filtered out the noise. The restored earthenware and porcelain were in good condition. Not a place where one hears the voice of messiahs.
It was the kind of house where, after you rang, there was a long wait. You didn’t just walk in as you would walk into your own home, but waited again—in the drawing room if properly attired. It was the kind of house that had a fixed routine. When one has spent one’s whole childhood in a village and lived with the whole family in a single room, the door always open, it leaves a mark. You don’t dare ring the doorbell of such a house—you might be disturbing the peace of those large rooms steeped in silence.
But at the judge’s place, the parade began: beggars, the unemployed, ex-prisoners, people on crutches—all climbed the five steps of the somber house. The bell rang a hundred times a day.
“I’ve had enough,” the lady of the house sometimes said. “Don’t go to the door, Maria. They should let us eat once in a while without being disturbed.”
But the judge got up. At the entryway they heard the sound of voices, then the door of his office opening with a grind. By the time he was back dinner would be cold.
“They’ll go straight to the café to drink your money,” his wife would say.
“Yes,” the judge conceded, “they have things to forget.”
There were some memorable scenes.
One Saturday afternoon, just as the children from the nearby school rushed out in a crowd chirping like sparrows, the judge received an unusual visit. A huge woman—wearing an astrakhan coat, wrapped in multicolored scarves, followed by her diminutive husband—climbed the steps of the porch and rang the bell. The husband, hiding under his bowler, stayed at the foot of the steps with a look of disapproval. He must have said something like “Don’t go in there, dear.” But the woman rang the bell again, and it was the judge who came to answer the door. The door was still half open. The husband cautiously descended the step he had just climbed, but the lady made a commanding circular gesture. “Sir,” she said, “I come in the name of the entire neighborhood, to tell you that it’s intolerable; this can’t be allowed to continue.”
“My God, what’s going on?” the judge said.
“The mechanic in the garage”—she pointed at a building farther down the road—“makes a hellish racket all day and night with his sputtering engines. But with you, it’s even worse!”
“What’s this all about?” the judge replied.
“Every day, there’s a parade of the unemployed who come to your door. Before, the neighborhood had a good reputation. Just watch. You’ll see—they’ll steal from you. You’ll have everyone against you.”
“Yes, yes,” the judge said.
“What I’m telling you is for your own good,” the lady said. “Besides, we sympathize with you. My husband is president of the Legion of Mary.” She gestured toward her husband, who took a step up and mumbled: “Yes, we share your ideas—the hope of saving everyone.”
“Yes, yes,” the judge said. “I understand you quite well. I too sometimes think…” Perhaps he was thinking of his old peaceful life, when he was looked on with respect in this neighborhood where people played bridge and had tea at five o’clock.
And off the lady went, dragging her stammering husband behind her, like a wisp of straw in her immense wake.
Later we learned that she had made a fortune selling pious objects.
The neighborhood inevitably had its triumph. Not that the painful parade of the poor came to an end, but the judge was badly duped. In the course of his wanderings, he had encountered a huge bearded man named Pablo, who lived with his wife in an old shell of a wagon covered with rusty sheet metal. A long police record, ten convictions. Pablo insisted there had been a misunderstanding each time. But the woman had a bad cough—and they didn’t want to send her to a hospital.
“I’ve got it,” the judge said to Pablo, “you can do the garden—I no longer have time.”
He gave the couple the last available room in the house. Pablo began working in the garden, but by chance they soon recognized his talent as a cook. The judge’s wife, horrified, locked all the kitchen cupboards and cabinets.
“Leave the keys, my dear, you might humiliate them,” the judge said.
The unhappy woman spent her evenings kneeling in front of a cabinet, counting her silver on the sly.
In fact the bearded man was quite honest. His wife too. They even found things that had been lost for years. But one morning the postman brought Pablo an overdue pension check for fifteen thousand francs. Two days later, he came back drunk, with three thousand francs left.
“Take them,” the bearded cook said to the judge. “If I ask you for them, don’t give them to me. I’ve paid a heavy price for drinking with old buddies.”
The next day he begged the judge to give him back the money. Despite misgivings, the judge returned the three thousand francs. After that night, Pablo had only five hundred francs left, which he donated to what he called “good works.”
“You see, my dear,” the judge said, “they don’t know the value of things—they’ve been deprived so long. It makes more sense to leave them free. They’re just big children.”
Not long after that, Pablo, the big child, made off—with his beard, his wife, and all the silverware.
“That will teach him!” the neighbors said. It didn’t teach him a thing.
Christmas came. People felt carried back to the magic of childhood.
Standing in ecstasy in front of the shop windows were poorly clothed children, thin, crooked-limbed, their whole soul in their eyes. One wanted to go in, throw a pile of bills on the counter, and give them construction sets, model trains, everything. In fortunate homes, as evening fell, parents returned furtively with mysterious smiles, their arms full of bundles.
In the judge’s house the dining room had been transformed into a wrapping station: for a week, the judge, his wife, Maria, everyone wrapped packages, under the astonished eyes of Maria’s child—teddy bears, fantastic dolls, sweaters, children’s slippers, bars of chocolate, cigarettes. “It’s better than bread,” the judge said, “for people who are bored.” The judge never smoked.
They made marvelous packages on which he wrote, “From a child, for Christmas.” For four days in a row he set out for the poorest parts of town, rushing around like a thief. It’s easy to enter the homes of poor people. One doesn’t have to ring. The doors are often open. When it was possible, he went inside and put the miraculous packages down on a table; if the door was closed, he knocked and left the packages on the doormat. Then he rushed away quickly.
“They should think it’s a miracle,” the judge said. “Let there be a little love in life. A little mystery.”
The following year he hardly had time for a vacation.
At the end of July he set out for Saint-Aulaine with his wife, Maria, and Maria’s child, who could now walk a little. Two or three times, in the afternoon, they went along the edge of the sea. But his heart wasn’t in it any more. Fixed images hid the water from him.
“You’re not going to start up again,” said the rector, who organized high Masses, special collections, and three fairs a season. “You’ve got to be reasonable. Your health, the family…”
But the judge seemed to hear and see something within himself. He heard the doorbell sounding back in his deserted house and saw worn-down slippers dragging back down the front steps—the feet of men who had been abandoned.
On any pretext he would leave behind his wife and his grown children, who came back to the villa once a year with their own kids. He took his long walks again, received more tramps, did his own cooking like an old bachelor, and always he looked like a judge—only his eyes grew tender and burned softly, as in images of the saints.
Did people ever know what had happened? Some said he’d had a conversion. A strange sort of conversion—since he’d always gone to church on Sundays. When the last bells sounded on the roofs, he’d rush into St. Ursula’s for high Mass. Others thought he’d fallen on his head, that his charity was just a form of senility. Fanatical leftists called him a paternalist, fearful conservatives called him a socialist. The most excitable types called him a communist. So many ways to reassure themselves. To classify someone is to cut him down to size. Make him seem smaller and you seem bigger.
The only thing people were ever able to find out is that, shortly after he retired, he had gone to Paris to see his nephew. An odd young man of twenty-seven, a member of the “Mission de Paris.” He worked in the Renault auto plant in Billancourt. In the evenings, at 6:15, he said Mass in a small room just off the street. A strange Mass, led by a tall young man who had been dirty and wearing work clothes a few minutes before but was now in royal dress...with about ten men standing around the altar, their faces tired, their eyes shining.
“Stay with us a few days,” the nephew said. “You’ll see for yourself. There’s an extra stretcher you can sleep on, and good blankets.”
The judge stayed, followed the schedule, peeling potatoes, going to get supplies—paying for them himself, of course, since there was never any money in the place.
From seven o’clock in the evening to midnight, he watched the sad parade of those who visited the young priest. Men who came to have a bite to eat and told their stories. Above all men who had no work. Their faces revealed their humiliation. Someone who doesn’t have a job doesn’t look you in the eye. People said that when there was no more room in the little house on Point-du-Jour street the young priest used to sleep on a bench in the park.
The judge took walks as well. He inspected the slums, the depressed faces, and seemed to be making calculations.
When he got back home, he was sad for several days and didn’t eat much. Sometimes they heard him say, “Justice, justice…” Or: “They don’t know, they don’t pay attention…” That must have been it. For forty years he hadn’t had the time to pay attention. One had to pay attention in order to be just.
He never explained himself further. If he had explained, if he had had some plan for reform, if he had joined a committee, if he had become its president, he would have been saved…or lost.
But he had buried his head like an adolescent: he had stopped carrying an umbrella, gotten on his old brown bicycle, and let himself be cheated, fooled, mocked....
“A sucker—that’s what he’s become,” said the public prosecutor. But the prosecutor was an intelligent young man, a brilliant debater. He had his plan for reform. He was involved in politics.
Not everyone has that opportunity. To the “fools” is left the work of mercy, work that will never be taken away from them.
Hardly a normal burial. By a small café that changed its front window every six months, across from the city’s main school (where the judge had studied), Pablo put down his sack, left it at the café door, and took his place at the head of the tramps. The streetcar passed by, leaping dangerously, like an inebriated duck. Just at that moment, a young priest, blond and resolute, jumped off the streetcar at the avenue du Grand-College. He stopped short, looked at the first funeral car, then the second, put his hand on his beret. He made an awkward gesture and a bottle of ink fell out of his satchel, so that a giant violet star spattered on the pavement in honor of the judge.
“The ceremony will take place at eight o’clock in the parish church,” said the announcement. One has to respect the wishes of the dead, but the curé had protested. It set a bad example. Him, a rich man—if everyone did this, what would become of religion?
Apparently there was an old story behind this. The judge had once found a place for a dying man at Good Samaritan Hospital. There the judge had a run-in with the chaplain, a man both just and pious—punctilious.
“Burial of the poor is at eight o’clock—that’s the rule. Don’t want to set a new precedent.”
“Fine,” the judge said, “then they’ll bury me at eight, too.”
And so, after that long walk in the fog, we entered the cemetery, while the wheels of the hearse squeaked on the white gravel.
The man from the funeral home had hesitated a moment, not sure whether he should sprinkle the holy water on the ragged men who remained there, caps in their big knotted hands. But already the crowd was beginning to scatter among the gravestones.
Finally the judge was done surprising us. The neighborhood would be peaceful again. Once again it would be just us. There he was, lying quietly beneath the ground, on the same level with the rich and the destitute, placed alongside executioners and victims, judges and convicts, till the Last Judgment, when the dead will rise again.
But until then, misery will never end.
The story has been adapted and translated by Joseph Cunneen, a longtime Commonweal contributor. He last wrote about Jean Sulivan's work in 2006: "The Gospel of Sulivan."
Read more fiction from Commonweal here.