Il demone di F.S. Fitzgerald

Taps at Reveille” (“La sveglia”) è una raccolta di 18 brevi storie di Francis Scott Fitzgerald, pubblicata nel 1935 e dedicate all’agente di Fitzgerald, Harold Ober. È la quarta de finale raccolta di racconti che Fitzgerald pubblicò nella sua vita.

Questi i titoli originali dei 18 racconti:

“The Scandal Detectives”
“The Freshest Boy”
“He Thinks He’s Wonderful”
“The Captured Shadow”
“The Perfect Life”
“First Blood”
“A Nice Quiet Place”
“A Woman with a Past”
“Crazy Sunday”
“Two Wrongs”
“The Night of Chancellorsville”
“The Last of the Belles”
“Majesty”
“Family in the Wind”
“A Short Trip Home”
“One Interne”
“The Fiend”
“Babylon Revisited”

Pubblichiamo, con il testo originale in lingua inglese, “The fiend”: la cronaca dell’insano rapporto tra un fotografo e l’assassino che ha sterminato la sua famiglia…

La redazione di i-libri.com

Il demone

di Francis Scott Fitzgerald

Il 3 giugno del 1895, su una strada di campagna nei pressi di Stillwater, in Minnesota, la signora Crenshaw Engels e il figlio di sette anni, Mark, furono sorpresi e uccisi da un pazzo criminale, una specie di demone, in circostanze così atroci che, per fortuna, non è necessario riportare qui.

Crenshaw Engels, il marito e padre, era un fotografo di Stillwater.

Era un grande lettore e considerato «turbolento», solo per il fatto che si fosse espresso apertamente sulle lotte tra ferrovie e contadini del tempo. Ma nessuno negava che fosse un uomo devoto alla famiglia e la catastrofe che si era abbattuta su di lui rimase nelle teste e sulle bocche di tutti in città per parecchie settimane.

***

Agli occhi dei vicini di casa era diventato un uomo rovinato dalle avversità, un fallito, un uomo svuotato. Ma riguardo a quest’ultimo punto, i vicini si sbagliavano. Egli era svuotato di tutto a parte una cosa. La sua memoria era forte, come quella di un vecchio, e sebbene avesse il cuore già nella tomba, la testa era rimasta la stessa di quando quella mattina d’estate la moglie e il figlio erano usciti per la loro ultima passeggiata. Durante il processo preliminare, aveva perso il controllo: si era scaraventato contro quel demone, afferrandolo per la cravatta e lo stava quasi per soffocare prima di essere trascinato via. Al secondo processo Crenshaw a un certo punto si era messo a gridare. Poi si era rivolto a tutti i membri della legislatura statale della contea e consegnato loro un disegno di legge che egli stesso aveva scritto per l’introduzione della pena di morte nello stato; il disegno di legge sarebbe stato retroattivo per i criminali già condannati all’ergastolo. Il disegno di legge non passò. Fu il giorno in cui ricevette tale notizia, che Crenshaw riuscì a entrare nel penitenziario con uno stratagemma e fu fermato giusto in tempo prima che si mettesse a sparare a quel Demone nella propria cella. Crenshaw venne liberato con la condizionale e per alcuni mesi si pensò che la furia della sua mente si stesse lentamente spegnendo. Infatti, quando si presentò al direttore in altro ruolo, un anno dopo il delitto, l’ufficiale si fece convincere dalla dichiarazione di Crenshaw che durante quell’ultimo anno era cambiato e sarebbe potuto emergere da quella valle di ombre solo con il perdono. Gli disse che voleva aiutare quel «demone», mostrargli il Vero Sentiero attraverso libri giusti e appelli alla parte migliore della natura di quel criminale che ora giaceva sepolta. Così, dopo essere stato accuratamente visitato, a Crenshaw fu permesso di sedersi per mezz’ora nel corridoio fuori dalla cella del Demone.

Ma se il direttore avesse sospettato la verità, non avrebbe mai permesso quella visita. Perché il piano di Crenshaw era ben lontano dal perdono. Quando si trovò di fronte quell’essere malvagio, Crenshaw sentì formicolare tutta la testa. Dietro le sbarre c’era un uomo pasciuto, che in qualche modo faceva sembrare la propria uniforme da carcerato un abito d’affari; un uomo con gli occhiali spessi e l’aspetto ordinato di un venditore di assicurazioni che lo guardava con aria incerta. Sentendosi svenire, Crenshaw si sedette sulla sedia che gli era stata portata.

***

Per iniziare Crenshaw aveva portato una mezza dozzina di libri che la sua curiosità aveva raccolto nel corso di parecchi anni. Comprendevano un migliaio di casi di anormalità sessuale descritti da un dottore tedesco, casi per cui non esistevano cure o speranze o prognosi, casi definiti irrisolvibili; una serie di sermoni di una Chiesa del Risveglio del New England che immaginavano le torture dei dannati all’inferno; una raccolta di storie d’orrore; un volume di racconti erotici da ciascuno dei quali le ultime due pagine, contenenti le scene in cui l’amore veniva consumato, erano state strappate; un volume di racconti gialli anche loro mutilati nello stesso modo. Un tomo su cui erano segnate le più celebri esecuzioni capitali completava il lotto. Crenshaw fece passare i libri attraverso le sbarre. Il Demone li prese e li mise sulla branda di ferro.

Questa fu la prima di una lunga serie di visite quindicinali da parte di Crenshaw. Aveva sempre con sé qualcosa di cupo e minaccioso da riferire, qualcosa di oscuro e terribile da leggere, salvo una volta, quando, dato che il Demone non aveva avuto niente da leggere per lungo tempo, gli portò quattro libri con titoli interessanti, ma dentro contenevano soltanto pagine bianche. Un’altra volta, fingendo di cedere un po’, gli promise che gli avrebbe portato dei giornali, ma gli portò solo dieci copie del giornale ingiallito che denunciava il suo reato e l’arresto. A volte riusciva a recuperare libri di medicina che mostravano, con illustrazioni in rosso e blu e verde, le devastazioni della lebbra e delle malattie della pelle, i cumuli di cellule distrutte, il tessuto marcito e il sangue corrotto e marrone. E non c’era fogna del mondo editoriale da cui non riuscisse a recuperare tutto ciò che era greve e vile nell’uomo.

Crenshaw non sarebbe riuscito a portare avanti tutto questo fino a tempo indeterminato, sia a causa della spesa sia per il fatto che prima o poi tali libri sarebbero finiti. Quando furono passati cinque anni decise di passare a un altro tipo di tortura. Metteva in testa al Demone false speranze, dicendogli che i suoi sentimenti erano cambiati e che si sarebbe mosso per chiedere la grazia, e poi faceva a pezzi queste speranze. Oppure fingeva di avere una pistola con sé, o qualche sostanza infiammatoria che avrebbe mandato alla fiamme l’intera cella e incenerito il Demone in due minuti. Una volta gettò una finta bottiglia esplosiva nella cella e ascoltò deliziato le urla del Demone che correva avanti e indietro aspettando l’esplosione. Altre volte simulava con aria cupa che il legislatore avesse approvato una nuova legge che prevedeva che il Demone sarebbe stato mandato a morte entro poche ore.

Passò un decennio. Crenshaw a quarant’anni aveva già i capelli grigi, a cinquanta bianchi e la routine di alternare le visite quindicinali alle tombe dei cari e quelle al penitenziario era diventata tutta la sua vita. Qualche volta restava seduto fuori dalla cella del Demone, senza dire alcuna parola per tutta la mezz’ora che restava lì. Anche al Demone erano diventati i capelli bianchi in quei vent’anni. Aveva un aspetto piuttosto distinto con gli occhiali cerchiati in corno e i capelli bianchi. Sembrava avere grande rispetto per Crenshaw e anche quando quest’ultimo, in un improvviso ritorno di vitalità, gli promise che alla visita successiva avrebbe portato un revolver e avrebbe chiuso per sempre la questione, annuì gravemente, come se stessero stringendo un accordo e gli stesse dicendo: «Immagino di sì. Sì, suppongo che tu abbia perfettamente ragione», e non menzionò la questione alle guardie.

***

Quando arrivò il giorno non ebbe problemi a nascondere la pistola alle guardie del penitenziario. Ma con sua grande sorpresa trovò il Demone accovacciato sul suo lettino di ferro, invece che ad aspettarlo avidamente davanti alle sbarre.

«Sono malato» disse il Demone. «È tutto il giorno che mi brucia lo stomaco e non riesco a star fermo. Mi hanno dato una medicina, ma adesso è ancora peggio e non c’è nessuno che faccia niente».

A Crenshaw per un attimo parve che quella fosse una premonizione delle viscere dell’uomo per il proiettile che a breve le avrebbe perforate.

«Avvicinati alle sbarre», gli disse dolcemente.

«Non riesco a muovermi».

«Sì, ce la fai».

«Sono piegato in due. Non riesco a stare dritto».

«Vieni piegato, allora».

Con uno sforzo il Demone si mosse, solo per cadere su un fianco sul pavimento di cemento. Gemette e poi rimase in silenzio per un minuto, dopo di che, ancora piegato in due, cominciò a trascinarsi un passo alla volta verso le sbarre.

***

«È morto», disse il direttore del carcere. «La sua appendice è scoppiata. Hanno fatto tutto il possibile».

«Morto» ripeté Crenshaw.

«Mi dispiace darle questa notizia. So quanto…».

«Va tutto bene», disse Crenshaw, «Dunque è morto».

Il direttore si accese una sigaretta.

Sentendosi infelicemente solo e disperato, mormorò ad alta voce: «E dunque è morto, mi ha lasciato». E poi con un lungo sospiro dove si mischiavano dolore e paura, «Dunque l’ho perso… il mio unico amico… ora sono solo». Stava ancora parlando con se stesso mentre passava attraverso il cancello esterno. Quando il cappotto gli si impigliò nella porta esterna della prigione, la guardia la riaprì per liberarlo e lo sentì ripetere: «Sono solo. Alla fine… alla fine sono solo».

Passò un’altra volta a trovare il Demone, dopo diverse settimane.

«Ma è morto», gli disse il direttore gentilmente.

«Oh, già» disse Crenshaw. «Credo di essermelo dimenticato».

E ripartì verso casa, con gli stivali che affondavano nella superficie diamantina e bianca del terreno.

The fiend

by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

Esquire (January 1935)

On June 3, 1895, on a country road near Stillwater, Minnesota, Mrs. Crenshaw Engels and her seven year old son, Mark, were waylaid and murdered by a fiend, under circumstances so atrocious that, fortunately, it is not necessary to set them down here.

Crenshaw Engels, the husband and father, was a photographer in Stillwater. He was a great reader and considered “a little unsafe,” for he had spoken his mind frankly about the railroad-agrarian struggles of the time–but no one denied that he was a devoted family man, and the catastrophe visited upon him hung over the little town for many weeks. There was a move to lynch the perpetrator of the horror, for Minnesota did not permit the capital punishment it deserved, but the instigators were foiled by the big stone penitentiary close at hand.

The cloud hung over Engel’s home so that folks went there only in moods of penitence, of fear or guilt, hoping that they would be visited in turn should their lives ever chance to trek under a black sky. The photography studio suffered also: the routine of being posed, the necessary silences and pauses in the process, permitted the clients too much time to regard the prematurely aged face of Crenshaw Engels, and high school students, newly married couples, mothers of new babies, were always glad to escape from the place into the open air. So Crenshaw’s business fell off and he went through a time of hardship–finally liquidating the lease, the apparatus and the good will, and wearing out the money obtained. He sold his house for a little more than its two mortgages, went to board and took a position clerking in Radamacher’s Department Store.

In the sight of his neighbors he had become a man ruined by adversity, a man manqué, a man emptied. But in the last opinion they were wrong–he was empty of all save one thing. His memory was long as a Jew’s, and though his heart was in the grave he was sane as when his wife and son had started on their last walk that summer morning. At the first trial he lost control and got at the Fiend, seizing him by the necktie–and then had been dragged off with the Fiend’s tie in such a knot that the man was nearly garotted.

At the second trial Crenshaw cried aloud once. Afterwards he went to all the members of the state legislature in the county and handed them a bill he had written himself for the introduction of capital punishment in the state–the bill to be retroactive on criminals condemned to life imprisonment. The bill fell through; it was on the day Crenshaw heard this that he got inside the penitentiary by a ruse and was only apprehended in time to be prevented from shooting the Fiend in his cell.

Crenshaw was given a suspended sentence and for some months it was assumed that the agony was fading gradually from his mind. In fact when he presented himself to the warden in another rôle a year after the crime, the official was sympathetic to his statement that he had had a change of heart and felt he could only emerge from the valley of shadow by forgiveness, that he wanted to help the Fiend, show him the True Path by means of good books and appeals to his buried better nature. So, after being carefully searched, Crenshaw was permitted to sit for half an hour in the corridor outside the Fiend’s cell.

But had the warden suspected the truth he would not have permitted the visit–for, far from forgiving, Crenshaw’s plan was to wreak upon the Fiend a mental revenge to replace the physical one of which he was subducted.

When he faced the Fiend, Crenshaw felt his scalp tingle. From behind the bars a roly-poly man, who somehow made his convict’s uniform resemble a business suit, a man with thick brown-rimmed glasses and the trim air of an insurance salesman, looked at him uncertainly. Feeling faint Crenshaw sat down in the chair that had been brought for him.

“The air around you stinks!” he cried suddenly. “This whole corridor, this whole prison.”

“I suppose it does,” admitted the Fiend, “I noticed it too.”

“You’ll have time to notice it,” Crenshaw muttered. “All your life you’ll pace up and down stinking in that little cell, with everything getting blacker and blacker. And after that there’ll be hell waiting for you. For all eternity you’ll be shut in a little space, but in hell it’ll be so small that you can’t stand up or stretch out.”

“Will it now?” asked the Fiend concerned.

“It will!” said Crenshaw. “You’ll be alone with your own vile thoughts in that little space, forever and ever and ever. You’ll itch with corruption so that you can never sleep, and you’ll always be thirsty, with water just out of reach.”

“Will I now?” repeated the Fiend, even more concerned. “I remember once–“

“All the time you’ll be full of horror,” Crenshaw interrupted. “You’ll be like a person just about to go crazy but can’t go crazy. All the time you’ll be thinking that it’s forever and ever.”

“That’s bad,” said the Fiend, shaking his head gloomily. “That’s real bad.”

“Now listen here to me,” went on Crenshaw. “I’ve brought you some books you’re going to read. It’s arranged that you get no books or papers except what I bring you.”

As a beginning Crenshaw had brought half a dozen books which his vagarious curiosity had collected over as many years. They comprised a German doctor’s thousand case histories of sexual abnormality–cases with no cures, no hopes, no prognoses, cases listed cold; a series of sermons by a New England Divine of the Great Revival which pictured the tortures of the damned in hell; a collection of horror stories; and a volume of erotic pieces from each of which the last two pages, containing the consummations, had been torn out; a volume of detective stories mutilated in the same manner. A tome of the Newgate calendar completed the batch. These Crenshaw handed through the bars–the Fiend took them and put them on his iron cot.

This was the first of Crenshaw’s long series of fortnightly visits. Always he brought with him something somber and menacing to say, something dark and terrible to read–save that once when the Fiend had had nothing to read for a long time he brought him four inspiringly titled books–that proved to have nothing but blank paper inside. Another time, pretending to concede a point, he promised to bring newspapers–he brought ten copies of the yellowed journal that had reported the crime and the arrest. Sometimes he obtained medical books that showed in color the red and blue and green ravages of leprosy and skin disease, the mounds of shattered cells, the verminous tissue and brown corrupted blood.

And there was no sewer of the publishing world from which he did not obtain records of all that was gross and vile in man.

Crenshaw could not keep this up indefinitely both because of the expense and because of the exhaustibility of such books. When five years had passed he leaned toward another form of torture. He built up false hopes in the Fiend with protests of his own change of heart and manoeuvres for a pardon, and then dashed the hopes to pieces. Or else he pretended to have a pistol with him, or an inflammatory substance that would make the cell a raging Inferno and consume the Fiend in two minutes–once he threw a dummy bottle into the cell and listened in delight to the screams as the Fiend ran back and forth waiting for the explosion. At other times he would pretend grimly that the legislature had passed a new law which provided that the Fiend would be executed in a few hours.

A decade passed. Crenshaw was gray at forty–he was white at fifty when the alternating routine of his fortnightly visits to the graves of his loved ones and to the penitentiary had become the only part of his life–the long days at Radamacher’s were only a weary dream. Sometimes he went and sat outside the Fiend’s cell, with no word said during the half hour he was allowed to be there. The Fiend too had grown white in twenty years. He was very respectable-looking with his horn-rimmed glasses and his white hair. He seemed to have a great respect for Crenshaw and even when the latter, in a renewal of diminishing vitality, promised him one day that on his very next visit he was going to bring a revolver and end the matter, he nodded gravely as if in agreement, said, “I suppose so. Yes, I suppose you’re perfectly right,” and did not mention the matter to the guards. On the occasion of the next visit he was waiting with his hands on the bars of the cell looking at Crenshaw both hopefully and desperately. At certain tensions and strains death takes on, indeed, the quality of a great adventure as any soldier can testify.

Years passed. Crenshaw was promoted to floor manager at Radamacher’s–there were new generations now that did not know of his tragedy and regarded him as an austere nonentity. He came into a little legacy and bought new stones for the graves of his wife and son. He knew he would soon be retired and while a third decade lapsed through the white winters, the short sweet smoky summers, it became more and more plain to him that the time had come to put an end to the Fiend; to avoid any mischance by which the other would survive him.

The moment he fixed upon came at the exact end of thirty years. Crenshaw had long owned the pistol with which it would be accomplished; he had fingered the shells lovingly and calculated the lodgement of each in the Fiend’s body, so that death would be sure but lingering–he studied the tales of abdominal wounds in the war news and delighted in the agony that made victims pray to be killed.

After that, what happened to him did not matter.

When the day came he had no trouble in smuggling the pistol into the penitentiary. But to his surprise he found the Fiend scrunched up upon his iron cot, instead of waiting for him avidly by the bars.

“I’m sick,” the Fiend said. “My stomach’s been burning me up all morning. They gave me a physic but now it’s worse and nobody comes.”

Crenshaw fancied momentarily that this was a premonition in the man’s bowels of a bullet that would shortly ride ragged through that spot.

“Come up to the bars,” he said mildly.

“I can’t move.”

“Yes, you can.”

“I’m doubled up. All doubled up.”

“Come doubled up then.”

With an effort the Fiend moved himself, only to fall on his side on the cement floor. He groaned and then lay quiet for a minute, after which, still bent in two, he began to drag himself a foot at a time toward the bars.

Suddenly Crenshaw set off at a run toward the end of the corridor.

“I want the prison doctor,” he demanded of the guard, “That man’s sick–sick, I tell you.”

“The doctor has–“

“Get him–get him now!”

The guard hesitated, but Crenshaw had become a tolerated, even privileged person around the prison, and in a moment the guard took down his phone and called the infirmary.

All that afternoon Crenshaw waited in the bare area inside the gates, walking up and down with his hands behind his back. From time to time he went to the front entrance and demanded of the guard:

“Any news?”

“Nothing yet. They’ll call me when there’s anything.”

Late in the afternoon the Warden appeared at the door, looked about and spotted Crenshaw. The latter, all alert, hastened over.

“He’s dead,” the Warden said. “His appendix burst. They did everything they could.”

“Dead,” Crenshaw repeated.

“I’m sorry to bring you this news. I know how–“

“It’s all right,” said Crenshaw, and licking his lips. “So he’s dead.”

The Warden lit a cigarette.

“While you’re here, Mr. Engels, I wonder if you can let me have that pass that was issued to you–I can turn it in to the office. That is–I suppose you won’t need it any more.”

Crenshaw took the blue card from his wallet and handed it over. The Warden shook hands with him.

“One thing more,” Crenshaw demanded as the Warden turned away. “Which is the–the window of the infirmary?”

“It’s on the interior court, you can’t see it from here.”

“Oh.”

When the Warden had gone Crenshaw still stood there a long time, the tears running out down his face. He could not collect his thoughts and he began by trying to remember what day it was; Saturday, the day, every other week, on which he came to see the Fiend.

He would not see the Fiend two weeks from now.

In a misery of solitude and despair he muttered aloud: “So he is dead. He has left me.” And then with a long sigh of mingled grief and fear, “So I have lost him–my only friend–now I am alone.”

He was still saying that to himself as he passed through the outer gate, and as his coat caught in the great swing of the outer door the guard opened up to release it, he heard a reiteration of the words:

“I’m alone. At last–at last I am alone.”

Once more he called on the Fiend, after many weeks.

“But he’s dead,” the Warden told him kindly.

“Oh, yes,” Crenshaw said. “I guess I must have forgotten.”

And he set off back home, his boots sinking deep into the white diamond surface of the flats.