Michel’s death marked, one might say, the end of the first period, that of bewildering portents, and the beginning of another, relatively more trying, in which the perplexity of the early days gave place to panic… Our townsfolk realized that they had never dreamed it possible that our little town should be chosen out for such grotesque happenings as the wholesale death of rats in broad daylight or the decease of concierges through exotic maladies… Still, if things had gone thus far and no farther, force of habit would doubtless have gained the day, as usual.
Every day… a dapper little old man stepped out on the balcony on the other side of the street… Leaning over the balcony he would call: “Pussy! Pussy!” in a voice at once haughty and endearing… He then proceeded to tear some paper into scraps and let them fall into the street; interested by the fluttering shower of white butterflies, the cats came forward, lifting tentative paws toward the last scraps of paper. Then, taking careful aim, the old man would spit vigorously at the cats and, whenever a liquid missile hit the quarry, would beam with delight.
The word “plague” had just been uttered for the first time. At this stage of the narrative, with Dr. Bernard Rieux standing at his window, the narrator may, perhaps, be allowed to justify the doctor’s uncertainty and surprise – since, with very slight differences, his reaction was the same as that of the majority of the townsfolk. Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world; yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.
And this difficulty in finding his words had come to be the bane of his life. “Oh, Doctor,” he would exclaim, “how I’d like to learn to express myself!” He brought the subject up each time he met Rieux.
That evening, as he watched Grand’s receding form… He realized how absurd it was, but he simply couldn’t believe that a pestilence on the great scale could befall a town where people like Grand were to be found, obscure functionaries cultivating harmless eccentricities.
Moreover, the epidemic seemed to be on the wane; on some days only ten or so deaths were notified. Then, all of a sudden, the figure shot up again, vertically. On the day when the death-roll touched thirty, Dr. Rieux read an official telegram that the Prefect had just handed him, remarking: “So they’ve got alarmed at last.” The telegram ran: Proclaim a state of plague stop close the town.
Thus the first thing that plague brought to our town was exile.
Grand, too, had suffered. And he, too, might – as Rieux pointed out – have made a fresh start. But no, he had lost faith. Only, he couldn’t stop thinking about her. What he’d have liked to do was to write her a letter justifying himself.
“But it’s not easy,” he told Rieux. “I’ve been thinking it over for years. While we loved each other we didn’t need words to make ourselves understood. But people don’t love forever. A time came when I should have found the words to keep her with me – only I couldn’t.”
One grows out of pity when it’s useless. And in this feeling that his heart had slowly closed in on itself, the doctor found a solace, his only solace, for the almost unendurable burden of his days… To fight abstraction you must have something of it in your own make-up.
“If today the plague is in your midst, that is because the hour has struck for taking thought. The just man need have no fear, but the evildoer has good cause to tremble. For plague is the flail of God and the world His threshing-floor, and implacably He will thresh out His harvest until the wheat is separated from the chaff.”
At first the fact of being cut off from the outside world was accepted with a more or less good grace, much as people would have put up with any other temporary inconvenience that interfered with only a few of their habits. But, now they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky, already beginning to sizzle in the fires of summer…
Grand went on talking, but Rieux failed to follow all the worthy man was saying. All he gathered was that the work he was engaged on ran to a great many pages, and he was at almost excruciating pains to bring it to perfection. “Evenings, whole weeks, spent on one word, just think! Sometimes on a mere conjunction!”
A system of patrols was instituted and often in the empty, sweltering streets, heralded by a clatter of horse hoofs on the cobbles, a detachment of mounted police would make its way between the parallel lines of close-shut windows. Now and again a gunshot was heard; the special brigade recently detailed to destroy cats and dogs, as possible carriers of infection, was at work. And these whipcrack sounds startling the silence increased the nervous tension already existing in the town.
“My question’s this,” said Tarrou. “Why do you yourself show such devotion, considering you don’t believe in God? I suspect your answer may help me to mine.”
His face still in shadow, Rieux said that he’d already answered: that if he believed in an all-powerful God he would cease curing the sick and leave that to Him… in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road – in fighting against creation as he found it.
“After all,” the doctor repeated, then hesitated again, fixing his eyes on Tarrou, “it’s something that a man of your sort can understand most likely, but, since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?”
“Yes. But your victories will never be lasting; that’s all.”
Rieux’s face darkened.
“Yes, I know that. But it’s no reason for giving up the struggle.”
Those who enrolled in the “sanitary squads,” as they were called, had, indeed, no such great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do, and the unthinkable thing would then have been not to have brought themselves to do it. These groups enabled our townsfolk to come to grips with the disease and convinced them that, now that plague was among us, it was up to them to do whatever could be done to fight it. Since plague became in this way some men’s duty, it revealed itself as what it really was; that is, the concern of all.
No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared by all. Strongest of these emotions was the sense of exile and of deprivation, with all the crosscurrents of revolt and fear set up by these.
“In short, this epidemic has done him proud. Of a lonely man who hated loneliness it has made an accomplice… He is happily at one with all around him, with their superstitions, their groundless panics, the susceptibilities of people whose nerves are always on the stretch; with their fixed idea of talking the least possible about plague and nevertheless talking of it all the time…”
“I understand,” Paneloux said in a low voice. “That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.”
Rieux straightened up slowly…
“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.”
Tarrou, when told by Rieux what Paneloux had said, remarked that he’d known a priest who had lost his faith during the war, as the result of seeing a young man’s face with both eyes destroyed.
“Paneloux is right,” Tarrou continued. “When an innocent youth can have his eyes destroyed, a Christian should either lose his faith or consent to having his eyes destroyed. Paneloux declines to lose his faith, and he will go through with it to end. That’s what he meant to say.”
All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilence and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences…
I grant we should add a third category; that of the true healers. But it’s a fact one doesn’t come across many of them, and anyhow it must be a hard vocation. That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victims’ side, so as to reduce the damage done. Among them I can at least try to discover how one attains to the third category; in other words, to peace.
“I’m afraid I did not make myself clear. I’m told there are some voluntary workers from government offices in that camp… It would keep me busy, you see. And also – I know it may sound absurd, but I’d feel less separated from my little boy.”
Rieux stared at him. Could it be that a sudden gentleness showed in those hard, inexpressive eyes?
“Rieux,” he said at last, “you must tell me the whole truth. I count on that.”
“I promise it.”
Tarrou’s heavy face relaxed in a brief smile.
“Thanks. I don’t want to die, and I shall put up a fight. But if I lose the match, I want to make a good end of it.”
And with his arms locked around her… he let his tears flow freely, unknowing if they rose from present joy or from sorrow too long repressed; aware only that they would prevent his making sure if the face buried in the hollow of his shoulder was the face of which he had dreamed so often or, instead, a stranger’s face. For the moment he wished to behave like all those others around him who believed, or made believe, that plague can come and go without changing anything in men’s hearts.
…Dr. Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle, so that he should not be one of those who hold their peace but should bear witness in favor of those plague-stricken people; so that some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them might endure; and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.