Головна The plague

The plague

Chaos prevails when the bubonic plague strikes the Algerian coastal city of Oran. A haunting tale of human resilience in the face of unrelieved horror, Camus' novel about a bubonic plague ravaging the people of a North African coastal town is a classic of twentieth-century literature.
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Copyright 1948 by Stuart Gilbert

Copyright renewed 1975 by Stuart Gilbert

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in France as La Peste by Librairie Gallimard. Copyright 1947 by Editions Gallimard. Copyright renewed 1974 by Madame Albert Camus. This translation first published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., in 1948.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Camus, Albert, 1913–1960.

[Peste. English]

The plague / Albert Camus, translated from the French by Stuart Gilbert.—1st Vintage international ed.

p. cm.—(Vintage international)

Translation of. La peste.

eISBN: 978-0-307-82780-7

I. Title.

[PQ2605.A3734P413 1991]

843′.914—dc20 90-50477


Cover design by Helen Yentus




Title Page





































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About the Author


The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194– at Oran. Everyone agreed that considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast, headquarters of the prefect of a French department.

The town itself, let us admit, is ugly. It has a smug, placid air and you need time to discover what it is that makes it different from so many business centers in other parts of the world. How to conjure up a picture, for instance,;  of a town without pigeons, without any trees or gardens, where you never hear the beat of wings or the rustle of leaves—a thoroughly negative place, in short? The seasons are discriminated only in the sky. All that tells you of spring’s coming is the feel of the air, or the baskets of flowers brought in from the suburbs by peddlers; it’s a spring cried in the marketplaces. During the summer the sun bakes the houses bone-dry, sprinkles our walls with grayish dust, and you have no option but to survive those days of fire indoors, behind closed shutters. In autumn, on the other hand, we have deluges of mud. Only winter brings really pleasant weather.

Perhaps the easiest way of making a town’s acquaintance is to ascertain how the people in it work, how they love, and how they die. In our little town (is this, one wonders, an effect of the climate?) all three are done on much the same lines, with the same feverish yet casual air. The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens word hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, “doing business.” Naturally they don’t eschew such simpler pleasures as love-making, sea-bathing, going to the pictures. But, very sensibly, they reserve these pastimes for Saturday afternoons and Sundays and employ the rest of the week in making money, as much as possible. In the evening, on leaving the office, they forgather, at an hour that never varies, in the cafés, stroll the same boulevard, or take the air on their balconies. The passions of the young are violent and short-lived; the vices of older men seldom range beyond an addiction to bowling, to banquets and “socials,” or clubs where large sums change hands on the fall of a card.

It will be said, no doubt, that these habits are not peculiar to our town; really all our contemporaries are much the same. Certainly nothing is commoner nowadays than to see people working from morn till night and then proceeding to fritter away at card-tables, in cafés and in small-talk what time is left for living. Nevertheless there still exist towns and countries where people have now and then an inkling of something different. In general it doesn’t change their lives. Still, they have had an intimation, and that’s so much to the good. Oran, however, seems to be a town without intimations; in other words, completely modern. Hence I see no need to dwell on the manner of loving in our town. The men and women consume one another rapidly in what is called “the act of love,” or else settle down to a mild habit of conjugality. We seldom find a mean between these extremes. That, too, is not exceptional. At Oran, as elsewhere, for lack of time and thinking, people have to love one another without knowing much about it.

What is more exceptional in our town is the difficulty one may experience there in dying. “Difficulty,” perhaps, is not the right word; “discomfort” would come nearer. Being ill is never agreeable, but there are towns that stand by you, so to speak, when you are sick; in which you can, after a fashion, let yourself go. An invalid needs small attentions, he likes to have something to rely on, and that’s natural enough. But at Oran the violent extremes of temperature, the exigencies of business, the uninspiring surroundings, the sudden nightfalls, and the very nature of its pleasures call for good health. An invalid feels out of it there. Think what it must be for a dying man, trapped behind hundreds of walls all sizzling with heat, while the whole population, sitting in cafés or hanging on the telephone, is discussing shipments, bills of lading, discounts! It will then be obvious what discomfort attends death, even modern death, when it waylays you under such conditions in a dry place.

These somewhat haphazard observations may give a fair idea of what our town is like. However, we must not exaggerate. Really, all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it. But you can get through the days there without trouble, once you have formed habits. And since habits are precisely what our town encourages, all is for the best. Viewed from this angle, its life is not particularly exciting; that must be admitted. But, at least, social unrest is quite unknown among us. And our frank-spoken, amiable, and industrious citizens have always inspired a reasonable esteem in visitors. Treeless, glamourless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there.

It is only fair to add that Oran is grafted on to a unique landscape, in the center of a bare plateau, ringed with luminous hills and above a perfectly shaped bay. All we may regret is the town’s being so disposed that it turns its back on the bay, with the result that it’s impossible to see the sea, you always have to go to look for it.

Such being the normal life of Oran, it will be easily understood that our fellow citizens had not the faintest reason to apprehend the incidents that took place in the spring of the year in question and were (as we subsequently realized) premonitory signs of the grave events we are to chronicle. To some, these events will seem quite natural; to others, all but incredible. But, obviously, a narrator cannot take account of these differences of outlook. His business is only to say: “This is what happened,” when he knows that it actually did happen, that it closely affected the life of a whole populace, and that there are thousands of eyewitnesses who can appraise in their hearts the truth of what he writes.

In any case the narrator (whose identity will be made known in due course) would have little claim to competence for a task like this, had not chance put him in the way of gathering much information, and had he not been, by the force of things, closely involved in all that he proposes to narrate. This is his justification for playing the part of a historian. Naturally, a historian, even an amateur, always has data, personal or at second hand, to guide him. The present narrator has three kinds of data: first, what he saw himself; secondly, the accounts of other eyewitnesses (thanks to the part he played, he was enabled to learn their personal impressions from all those figuring in this chronicle); and, lastly, documents that subsequently came into his hands. He proposes to draw on these records whenever this seems desirable, and to employ them as he thinks best. He also proposes …

But perhaps the time has come to drop preliminaries and cautionary remarks and to launch into the narrative proper. The account of the first days needs giving in some detail.

When leaving his surgery on the morning of April 16, Dr. Bernard Rieux felt something soft under his foot. It was a dead rat lying in the middle of the landing. On the spur of the moment he kicked it to one side and, without giving it a further thought, continued on his way downstairs. Only when he was stepping out into the street did it occur to him that a dead rat had no business to be on his landing, and he turned back to ask the concierge of the building to see to its removal. It was not until he noticed old M. Michel’s reaction to the news that he realized the peculiar nature of his discovery. Personally, he had thought the presence of the dead rat rather odd, no more than that; the concierge, however, was genuinely outraged. On one point he was categorical: “There weren’t no rats here.” In vain the doctor assured him that there was a rat, presumably dead, on the second-floor landing; M. Michel’s conviction wasn’t to be shaken. There “weren’t no rats in the building,” he repeated, so someone must have brought this one from outside. Some youngster trying to be funny, most likely.

That evening, when Dr. Rieux was standing in the entrance, feeling for the latch-key in his pocket before starting up the stairs to his apartment, he saw a big rat coming toward him from the dark end of the passage. It moved uncertainly, and its fur was sopping wet. The animal stopped and seemed to be trying to get its balance, moved forward again toward the doctor, halted again, then spun around on itself with a little squeal and fell on its side. Its mouth was slightly open and blood was spurting from it. After gazing at it for a moment, the doctor went upstairs.

He wasn’t thinking about the rat. That glimpse of spurting blood had switched his thoughts back to something that had been on his mind all day. His wife, who had been ill for a year now, was due to leave next day for a sanatorium in the mountains. He found her lying down in the bedroom, resting, as he had asked her to do, in view of the exhausting journey before her. She gave him a smile.

“Do you know, I’m feeling ever so much better!” she said.

The doctor gazed down at the face that turned toward him in the glow of the bedside lamp. His wife was thirty, and the long illness had left its mark on her face. Yet the thought that came to Rieux’s mind as he gazed at her was:

How young she looks, almost like a little girl! But perhaps that was because of the smile, which effaced all else.

“Now try to sleep,” he counseled. “The nurse is coming at eleven, you know, and you have to catch the midday train.”

He kissed the slightly moist forehead. The smile escorted him to the door.

Next day, April 17, at eight o’clock the concierge buttonholed the doctor as he was going out. Some young scallywags, he said, had dumped three dead rats in the hall. They’d obviously been caught in traps with very strong springs, as they were bleeding profusely. The concierge had lingered in the doorway for quite a while, holding the rats by their legs and keeping a sharp eye on the passers-by, on the off chance that the miscreants would give themselves away by grinning or by some facetious remark. His watch had been in vain.

“But I’ll nab ’em all right,” said M. Michel hopefully.

Much puzzled, Rieux decided to begin his round in the outskirts of the town, where his poorer patients lived. The scavenging in these districts was done late in the morning and, as he drove his car along the straight, dusty streets, he cast glances at the garbage cans aligned along the edge of the sidewalk. In one street alone the doctor counted as many as a dozen rats deposited on the vegetable and other refuse in the cans.

He found his first patient, an asthma case of long standing, in bed, in a room that served as both dining-room and bedroom and overlooked the street. The invalid was an old Spaniard with a hard, rugged face. Placed on the coverlet in front of him were two pots containing dried peas. When the doctor entered, the old man was sitting up, bending his neck back, gasping and wheezing in his efforts to recover his breath. His wife brought a bowl of water.

“Well, Doctor,” he said, while the injection was being made, “they’re coming out, have you noticed?”

“The rats, he means,” his wife explained. “The man next door found three.”

“They’re coming out, you can see them in all the trash cans. It’s hunger!”

Rieux soon discovered that the rats were the great topic of conversation in that part of the town. After his round of visits he drove home.

“There’s a telegram for you, sir, upstairs,” M. Michel informed him.

The doctor asked him if he’d seen any more rats.

“No,” the concierge replied, “there ain’t been any more. I’m keeping a sharp lookout, you know. Those youngsters wouldn’t dare when I’m around.”

The telegram informed Rieux that his mother would be arriving next day. She was going to keep house for her son during his wife’s absence. When the doctor entered his apartment he found the nurse already there. He looked at his wife. She was in a tailor-made suit, and he noticed that she had used rouge. He smiled to her.

“That’s splendid,” he said. “You’re looking very nice.”

A few minutes later he was seeing her into the sleeping-car. She glanced round the compartment.

“It’s too expensive for us really, isn’t it?”

“It had to be done,” Rieux replied.

“What’s this story about rats that’s going round?”

“I can’t explain it. It certainly is queer, but it’ll pass.”

Then hurriedly he begged her to forgive him; he felt he should have looked after her better, he’d been most remiss. When she shook her head, as if to make him stop, he added: “Anyhow, once you’re back everything will be better. We’ll make a fresh start.”

“That’s it!” Her eyes were sparkling. “Let’s make a fresh start.”

But then she turned her head and seemed to be gazing through the car window at the people on the platform, jostling one another in their haste. The hissing of the locomotive reached their ears. Gently he called his wife’s first name; when she looked round he saw her face wet with tears.

“Don’t,” he murmured.

Behind the tears the smile returned, a little tense. She drew a deep breath.

“Now off you go! Everything will be all right.”

He took her in his arms, then stepped back on the platform. Now he could only see her smile through the window.

“Please, dear,” he said, “take great care of yourself.”

But she could not hear him.

As he was leaving the platform, near the exit he met M. Othon, the police magistrate, holding his small boy by the hand. The doctor asked him if he was going away.

Tall and dark, M. Othon had something of the air of what used to be called a man of the world, and something of an undertaker’s assistant.

“No,” the magistrate replied, “I’ve come to meet Madame Othon, who’s been to present her respects to my family.”

The engine whistled.

“These rats, now—” the magistrate began.

Rieux made a brief movement in the direction of the train, then turned back toward the exit.

“The rats?” he said. “It’s nothing.”

The only impression of that moment which, afterwards, he could recall was the passing of the railroadman with a box full of dead rats under his arm.

Early in the afternoon of that day, when his consultations were beginning, a young man called on Rieux. The doctor gathered that he had called before, in the morning, and was a journalist by profession. His name was Raymond Rambert. Short, square-shouldered, with a determined-looking face and keen, intelligent eyes, he gave the impression of someone who could keep his end up in any circumstances. He wore a sports type of clothes. He came straight to the point. His newspaper, one of the leading Paris dailies, had commissioned him to make a report on the living conditions prevailing among the Arab population, and especially on the sanitary conditions.

Rieux replied that these conditions were not good. But, before he said any more, he wanted to know if the journalist would be allowed to tell the truth.

“Certainly,” Rambert replied.

“I mean,” Rieux explained, “would you be allowed to publish an unqualified condemnation of the present state of things?”

“Unqualified? Well, no, I couldn’t go that far. But surely things aren’t quite so bad as that?”

“No,” Rieux said quietly, they weren’t so bad as that. He had put the question solely to find out if Rambert could or couldn’t state the facts without paltering with the truth. “I’ve no use for statements in which something is kept back,” he added. “That is why I shall not furnish information in support of yours.”

The journalist smiled. “You talk the language of Saint-Just.”

Without raising his voice Rieux said he knew nothing about that. The language he used was that of a man who was sick and tired of the world he lived in—though he had much liking for his fellow men—and had resolved, for his part, to have no truck with injustice and compromises with the truth.

His shoulders hunched, Rambert gazed at the doctor for some moments without speaking. Then, “I think I understand you,” he said, getting up from his chair.

The doctor accompanied him to the door.

“It’s good of you to take it like that,” he said.

“Yes, yes, I understand,” Rambert repeated, with what seemed a hint of impatience in his voice. “Sorry to have troubled you.”

When shaking hands with him, Rieux suggested that if he was out for curious stories for his paper, he might say something about the extraordinary number of dead rats that were being found in the town just now.

“Ah!” Rambert exclaimed. “That certainly interests me.”

On his way out at five for another round of visits, the doctor passed on the stairway a stocky, youngish man, with a big, deeply furrowed face and bushy eyebrows. He had met him once or twice in the top-floor apartment, which was occupied by some male Spanish dancers. Puffing a cigarette, Jean Tarrou was gazing down at the convulsions of a rat dying on the step in front of him. He looked up, and his gray eyes remained fixed on the doctor for some moments; then, after wishing him good day, he remarked that it was rather odd, the way all these rats were coming out of their holes to die.

“Very odd,” Rieux agreed, “and it ends by getting on one’s nerves.”

“In a way, Doctor, only in a way. We’ve not seen anything of the sort before, that’s all. Personally I find it interesting, yes, definitely interesting.”

Tarrou ran his fingers through his hair to brush it off his forehead, looking again at the rat, which had now stopped moving, then smiled toward Rieux.

“But really, Doctor, it’s the concierge’s headache, isn’t it?”

As it so happened, the concierge was the next person Rieux encountered. He was leaning against the wall beside the street door; he was looking tired and his normally rubicund face had lost its color.

“Yes, I know,” the old man told Rieux, who had informed him of the latest casualty among the rats. “I keep finding ’em by twos and threes. But it’s the same thing in the other houses in the street.”

He seemed depressed and worried, and was scratching his neck absentmindedly. Rieux asked him how he felt. The concierge wouldn’t go so far as to say he was feeling ill. Still he wasn’t quite up to the mark. In his opinion it was just due to worry; these damned rats had given him “a shock, like.” It would be a relief when they stopped coming out and dying all over the place.

Next morning—it was April 18—when the doctor was bringing back his mother from the station, he found M. Michel looking still more out of sorts. The stairway from the cellar to the attics was strewn with dead rats, ten or a dozen of them. The garbage cans of all the houses in the street were full of rats.

The doctor’s mother took it quite calmly.

“It’s like that sometimes,” she said vaguely. She was a small woman with silver hair and dark, gentle eyes. “I’m so glad to be with you again, Bernard,” she added. “The rats can’t change that, anyhow.”

He nodded. It was a fact that everything seemed easy when she was there.

However, he rang up the Municipal Office. He knew the man in charge of the department concerned with the extermination of vermin and he asked him if he’d heard about all the rats that were coming out to die in the open. Yes, Mercier knew all about it; in fact, fifty rats had been found in his offices, which were near the wharves. To tell the truth, he was rather perturbed; did the doctor think it meant anything serious? Rieux couldn’t give a definite opinion, but he thought the sanitary service should take action of some kind.

Mercier agreed. “And, if you think it’s really worth the trouble, I’ll get an order issued as well.”

“It certainly is worth the trouble,” Rieux replied.

His charwoman had just told him that several hundred dead rats had been collected in the big factory where her husband worked.

It was about this time that our townsfolk began to show signs of uneasiness. For, from April 18 onwards, quantities of dead or dying rats were found in factories and warehouses. In some cases the animals were killed to put an end to their agony. From the outer suburbs to the center of the town, in all the byways where the doctor’s duties took him, in every thoroughfare, rats were piled up in garbage cans or lying in long lines in the gutters. The evening papers that day took up the matter and inquired whether or not the city fathers were going to take steps, and what emergency measures were contemplated, to abate this particularly disgusting nuisance. Actually the municipality had not contemplated doing anything at all, but now a meeting was convened to discuss the situation. An order was transmitted to the sanitary service to collect the dead rats at daybreak every morning. When the rats had been collected, two municipal trucks were to take them to be burned in the town incinerator.

But the situation worsened in the following days. There were more and more dead vermin in the streets, and the collectors had bigger truckloads every morning. On the fourth day the rats began to come out and die in batches. From basements, cellars, and sewers they emerged in long wavering files into the light of day, swayed helplessly, then did a sort of pirouette and fell dead at the feet of the horrified onlookers. At night, in passages and alleys, their shrill little death-cries could be clearly heard. In the mornings the bodies were found lining the gutters, each with a gout of blood, like a red flower, on its tapering muzzle; some were bloated and already beginning to rot, others rigid, with their whiskers still erect. Even in the busy heart of the town you found them piled in little heaps on landings and in backyards. Some stole forth to die singly in the halls of public offices, in school playgrounds, and even on café terraces. Our townsfolk were amazed to find such busy centers as the Place d’Armes, the boulevards, the promenade along the waterfront, dotted with repulsive little corpses. After the daily clean-up of the town, which took place at sunrise, there was a brief respite; then gradually the rats began to appear again in numbers that went on increasing throughout the day. People out at night would often feel underfoot the squelchy roundness of a still-warm body. It was as if the earth on which our houses stood were being purged of its secreted humors; thrusting up to the surface the abscesses and pus-clots that had been forming in its entrails. You must picture the consternation of our little town, hitherto so tranquil, and now, out of the blue, shaken to its core, like a quite healthy man who all of a sudden feels his temperature shoot up and the blood seething like wildfire in his veins.

Things went so far that the Ransdoc Information Bureau (inquiries on all subjects promptly and accurately answered), which ran a free-information talk on the radio, by way of publicity, began its talk by announcing that no less than 6,231 rats had been collected and burned in a single day, April 25. Giving as it did an ampler and more precise view of the scene daily enacted before our eyes, this amazing figure administered a jolt to the public nerves. Hitherto people had merely grumbled at a stupid, rather obnoxious visitation; they now realized that this strange phenomenon, whose scope could not be measured and whose origins escaped detection, had something vaguely menacing about it. Only the old Spaniard whom Dr. Rieux was treating for asthma went on rubbing his hands and chuckling: “They’re coming out, they’re coming out,” with senile glee.

On April 28, when the Ransdoc Bureau announced that 8,000 rats had been collected, a wave of something like panic swept the town. There was a demand for drastic measures, the authorities were accused of slackness, and people who had houses on the coast spoke of moving there, early in the year though it was. But next day the bureau informed them that the phenomenon had abruptly ended and the sanitary service had collected only a trifling number of rats. Everyone breathed more freely.

It was, however, on this same day, at noon, that Dr. Rieux, when parking his car in front of the apartment house where he lived, noticed the concierge coming toward him from the end of the street. He was dragging himself along, his head bent, arms and legs curiously splayed out, with the jerky movements of a clockwork doll. The old man was leaning on the arm of a priest whom the doctor knew. It was Father Paneloux, a learned and militant Jesuit, whom he had met occasionally and who was very highly thought of in our town, even in circles quite indifferent to religion. Rieux waited for the two men to draw up to him. M. Michel’s eyes were fever-bright and he was breathing wheezily. The old man explained that, feeling “a bit off color,” he had gone out to take the air. But he had started feeling pains in all sorts of places—in his neck, armpits, and groin—and had been obliged to turn back and ask Father Paneloux to give him an arm.

“It’s just swellings,” he said. “I must have strained myself somehow.”

Leaning out of the window of the car, the doctor ran his hand over the base of Michel’s neck; a hard lump, like a knot in wood, had formed there.

“Go to bed at once, and take your temperature. I’ll come to see you this afternoon.”

When the old man had gone, Rieux asked Father Paneloux what he made of this queer business about the rats.

“Oh, I suppose it’s an epidemic they’ve been having.” The Father’s eyes were smiling behind his big round glasses.

After lunch, while Rieux was reading for the second time the telegram his wife had sent him from the sanatorium, announcing her arrival, the phone rang. It was one of his former patients, a clerk in the Municipal Office, ringing him up. He had suffered for a long time from a constriction of the aorta, and, as he was poor, Rieux had charged no fee.

“Thanks, Doctor, for remembering me. But this time it’s somebody else. The man next door has had an accident. Please come at once.” He sounded out of breath.

Rieux thought quickly; yes, he could see the concierge afterwards. A few minutes later he was entering a small house in the rue Faidherbe, on the outskirts of the town. Halfway up the drafty, foul-smelling stairs, he saw Joseph Grand, the clerk, hurrying down to meet him. He was a man of about fifty years of age, tall and drooping, with narrow shoulders, thin limbs, and a yellowish mustache.

“He looks better now,” he told Rieux, “but I really thought his number was up.” He blew his nose vigorously.

On the top floor, the third, Rieux noticed something scrawled in red chalk on a door on the left: Come in, I’ve hanged myself.

They entered the room. A rope dangled from a hanging lamp above a chair lying on its side. The dining-room table had been pushed into a corner. But the rope hung empty.

“I got him down just in time.” Grand seemed always to have trouble in finding his words, though he expressed himself in the simplest possible way. “I was going out and I heard a noise. When I saw that writing on the door, I thought it was a—a prank. Only, then I heard a funny sort of groan; it made my blood run cold, as they say.” He scratched his head. “That must be a painful way of—of doing it, I should think. Naturally I went in.”

Grand had opened a door and they were standing on the threshold of a bright but scantily furnished bedroom. There was a brass bedstead against one of the walls, and a plump little man was lying there, breathing heavily. He gazed at them with bloodshot eyes. Rieux stopped short. In the intervals of the man’s breathing he seemed to hear the little squeals of rats. But he couldn’t see anything moving in the corners of the room. Then he went to the bedside. Evidently the man had not fallen from a sufficient height, or very suddenly, for the collar-bone had held. Naturally there was some asphyxia. An X-ray photograph would be needed. Meanwhile the doctor gave him a camphor injection and assured him he would be all right in a few days.

“Thanks, Doctor,” the man mumbled.

When Rieux asked Grand if he had notified the police, he hung his head.

“Well, as a matter of fact, I haven’t. The first thing I thought, was to—”

“Quite so,” Rieux cut in. “I’ll see to it.”

But the invalid made a fretful gesture and sat up in bed. He felt much better, he explained; really it wasn’t worth the trouble.

“Don’t feel alarmed,” Rieux said. “It’s little more than a formality. Anyhow, I have to report this to the police.”

“Oh!” The man slumped back on the bed and started sobbing weakly.

Grand, who had been twiddling his mustache while they were speaking, went up to the bed.

“Come, Monsieur Cottard,” he said. “Try to understand. People could say the doctor was to blame, if you took it into your head to have another shot at it.”

Cottard assured him tearfully that there wasn’t the least risk of that; he’d had a sort of crazy fit, but it had passed and all he wanted now was to be left in peace. Rieux was writing a prescription.

“Very well,” he said. “We’ll say no more about it for the present. I’ll come and see you again in a day or two. But don’t do anything silly.”

On the landing he told Grand that he was obliged to make a report, but would ask the police inspector to hold up the inquiry for a couple of days.

“But somebody should watch Cottard tonight,” he added. “Has he any relations?”

“Not that I know of. But I can very well stay with him. I can’t say I really know him, but one’s got to help a neighbor, hasn’t one?”

As he walked down the stairs Rieux caught himself glancing into the darker corners, and he asked Grand if the rats had quite disappeared in his part of the town.

Grand had no idea. True, he’d heard some talk about rats, but he never paid much attention to gossip like that. “I’ve other things to think about,” he added.

Rieux, who was in a hurry to get away, was already shaking his hand. There was a letter to write to his wife, and he wanted to see the concierge first.

News-venders were shouting the latest news—that the rats had disappeared. But Rieux found his patient leaning over the edge of the bed, one hand pressed to his belly and the other to his neck, vomiting pinkish bile into a slop-pail. After retching for some minutes, the man lay back again, gasping. His temperature was 103, the ganglia of his neck and limbs were swollen, and two black patches were developing on his thighs. He now complained of internal pains.

“It’s like fire,” he whimpered. “The bastard’s burning me inside.”

He could hardly get the words through his fever-crusted lips and he gazed at the doctor with bulging eyes that his headache had suffused with tears. His wife cast an anxious look at Rieux, who said nothing.

“Please, Doctor,” she said, “what is it?”

“It might be—almost anything. There’s nothing definite as yet. Keep him on a light diet and give him plenty to drink.”

The sick man had been complaining of a raging thirst.

On returning to his apartment Rieux rang up his colleague Richard, one of the leading practitioners in the town.

“No,” Richard said, “I can’t say I’ve noticed anything exceptional.”

“No cases of fever with local inflammation?”

“Wait a bit! I have two cases with inflamed ganglia.”

“Abnormally so?”

“Well,” Richard said, “that depends on what you mean by ‘normal.’ ”

Anyhow, that night the porter was running a temperature of 104 and in delirium, always babbling about “them rats.” Rieux tried a fixation abscess. When he felt the sting of the turpentine, the old man yelled: “The bastards!”

The ganglia had become still larger and felt like lumps of solid fibrous matter embedded in the flesh. Mme. Michel had completely broken down.

“Sit up with him,” the doctor said, “and call me if necessary.”

Next day, April 30, the sky was blue and slightly misty. A warm, gentle breeze was blowing, bringing with it a smell of flowers from the outlying suburbs. The morning noises of the streets sounded louder, gayer than usual. For everyone in our little town this day brought the promise of a new lease on life, now that the shadow of fear under which they had been living for a week had lifted. Rieux, too, was in an optimistic mood when he went down to see the concierge; he had been cheered up by a letter from his wife that had come with the first mail.

Old M. Michel’s temperature had gone down to 99 and, though he still looked very weak, he was smiling.

“He’s better, Doctor, isn’t he?” his wife inquired.

“Well, it’s a bit too early to say.”

At noon the sick man’s temperature shot up abruptly to 104, he was in constant delirium and had started vomiting again. The ganglia in the neck were painful to the touch, and the old man seemed to be straining to hold his head as far as possible from his body. His wife sat at the foot of the bed, her hands on the counterpane, gently clasping his feet. She gazed at Rieux imploringly.

“Listen,” he said, “we’ll have to move him to a hospital and try a special treatment. I’ll ring up for the ambulance.”

Two hours later the doctor and Mme. Michel were in the ambulance bending over the sick man. Rambling words were issuing from the gaping mouth, thickly coated now with sordes. He kept on repeating: “Them rats! Them damned rats!” His face had gone livid, a grayish green, his lips were bloodless, his breath came in sudden gasps. His limbs spread out by the ganglia, embedded in the berth as if he were trying to bury himself in it or a voice from the depths of the earth were summoning him below, the unhappy man seemed to be stifling under some unseen pressure. His wife was sobbing.

“Isn’t there any hope left, Doctor?”

“He’s dead,” said Rieux.

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 gradually gave place to panic. Reviewing that first phase in the light of subsequent events, our townsfolk realized that they had never dreamed it possible that our little town should be chosen out for the scene of such grotesque happenings as the wholesale death of rats in broad daylight or the decease of concierges through exotic maladies. In this respect they were wrong, and their views obviously called for revision. Still, if things had gone thus far and no farther, force of habit would doubtless have gained the day, as usual. But other members of our community, not all menials or poor people, were to follow the path down which M. Michel had led the way. And it was then that fear, and with fear serious reflection, began.

However, before entering on a detailed account of the next phase, the narrator proposes to give the opinion of another witness on the period that has been described. Jean Tarrou, whose acquaintance we have already made at the beginning of this narrative, had come to Oran some weeks before and was staying in a big hotel in the center of the town. Apparently he had private means and was not engaged in business. But though he gradually became a familiar figure in our midst, no one knew where he hailed from or what had brought him to Oran. He was often to be seen in public and at the beginning of spring was seen on one or other of the beaches almost every day; obviously he was fond of swimming. Good-humored, always ready with a smile, he seemed an addict of all normal pleasures without being their slave. In fact, the only habit he was known to have was that of cultivating the society of the Spanish dancers and musicians who abound in our town.

His notebooks comprise a sort of chronicle of those strange early days we all lived through. But an unusual type of chronicle, since the writer seems to make a point of understatement, and at first sight we might almost imagine that Tarrou had a habit of observing events and people through the wrong end of a telescope. In those chaotic times he set himself to recording the history of what the normal historian passes over. Obviously we may deplore this curious kink in his character and suspect in him a lack of proper feeling. All the same, it is undeniable that these notebooks, which form a sort of discursive diary, supply the chronicler of the period with a host of seemingly trivial details which yet have their importance, and whose very oddity should be enough to prevent the reader from passing hasty judgment on this singular man.

The earliest entries made by Jean Tarrou synchronize with his coming to Oran. From the outset they reveal a paradoxical satisfaction at the discovery of a town so intrinsically ugly. We find in them a minute description of the two bronze lions adorning the Municipal Office, and appropriate comments on the lack of trees, the hideousness of the houses, and the absurd lay-out of the town. Tarrou sprinkles his descriptions with bits of conversation overheard in streetcars and in the streets, never adding a comment on them except—this comes somewhat later—in the report of a dialogue concerning a man named Camps. It was a chat between two streetcar conductors.

“You knew Camps, didn’t you?” asked one of them.

“Camps? A tall chap with a black mustache?”

“That’s him. A switchman.”

“Ah yes, I remember now.”

“Well, he’s dead.”

“Oh? When did he die?”

“After that business about the rats.”

“You don’t say so! What did he die of?”

“I couldn’t say exactly. Some kind of fever. Of course, he never was what you might call fit. He got abscesses under the arms, and they did him in, it seems.”

“Still, he didn’t look that different from other people.”

“I wouldn’t say that. He had a weak chest and he used to play the trombone in the town band. It’s hard on the lungs, blowing a trombone.”

“Ah, if you’ve got weak lungs, it don’t do you any good, blowing down a big instrument like that.”

After jotting down this dialogue Tarrou went on to speculate why Camps had joined a band when it was so clearly inadvisable, and what obscure motive had led him to risk his life for the sake of parading the streets on Sunday mornings.

We gather that Tarrou was agreeably impressed by a little scene that took place daily on the balcony of a house facing his window. His room at the hotel looked on to a small side street and there were always several cats sleeping in the shadow of the walls. Every day, soon after lunch, at a time when most people stayed indoors, enjoying a siesta, a dapper little old man stepped out on the balcony on the other side of the street. He had a soldierly bearing, very erect, and affected a military style of dressing; his snow-white hair was always brushed to perfect smoothness. Leaning over the balcony he would call: “Pussy! Pussy!” in a voice at once haughty and endearing. The cats blinked up at him with sleep-pale eyes, but made no move as yet. 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.

Lastly, Tarrou seemed to have been quite fascinated by the commercial character of the town, whose aspect, activities, and even pleasures all seemed to be dictated by considerations of business. This idiosyncrasy—the term he uses in his diary—was warmly approved of by Tarrou; indeed, one of his appreciative comments ends on the exclamation: “At last!”

These are the only passages in which our visitor’s record, at this period, strikes a seemingly personal note. Its significance and the earnestness behind it might escape the reader on a casual perusal. For example, after describing how the discovery of a dead rat led the hotel cashier to make an error in his bill, Tarrou added: “Query: How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in a dentist’s waiting-room; by remaining on one’s balcony all of a Sunday afternoon; by listening to lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling by the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course standing all the way; by lining up at the box-office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.”

Then, immediately following these eccentricities of thought and expression, we come on a detailed description of the streetcar service in the town, the structure of the cars, their indeterminate color, their unvarying dirtiness—and he concludes his observations with a “Very odd,” which explains nothing.

So much by the way of introduction to Tarrou’s comments on the phenomenon of the rats.

“The little old fellow opposite is quite disconsolate today. There are no more cats. The sight of all those dead rats strewn about the street may have excited their hunting instinct; anyhow, they all have vanished. To my thinking, there’s no question of their eating the dead rats. Mine, I remember, turned up their noses at dead things. All the same, they’re probably busy hunting in the cellars—hence the old boy’s plight. His hair isn’t as well brushed as usual, and he looks less alert, less military. You can see he is worried. After a few moments he went back into the room. But first he spat once—on emptiness.

“In town today a streetcar was stopped because a dead rat had been found in it. (Query: How did it get there?) Two or three women promptly alighted. The rat was thrown out. The car went on.

“The night watchman at the hotel, a level-headed man, assured me that all these rats meant trouble coming. ‘When the rats leave a ship …’ I replied that this held good for ships, but for towns it hadn’t yet been demonstrated. But he stuck to his point. I asked what sort of ‘trouble’ we might expect. That he couldn’t say; disasters always come out of the blue. But he wouldn’t be surprised if there were an earthquake brewing. I admitted that was possible, and then he asked if the prospect didn’t alarm me.

“ ‘The only thing I’m interested in,’ I told him, ‘is acquiring peace of mind.’

“He understood me perfectly.

“I find a family that has its meals in this hotel quite interesting. The father is a tall, thin man, always dressed in black and wearing a starched collar. The top of his head is bald, with two tufts of gray hair on each side. His small, beady eyes, narrow nose, and hard, straight mouth make him look like a well-brought-up owl. He is always first at the door of the restaurant, stands aside to let his wife—a tiny woman, like a black mouse—go in, and then comes in himself with a small boy and girl, dressed like performing poodles, at his heels. When they are at the table he remains standing till his wife is seated and only then the two poodles can perch themselves on their chairs. He uses no terms of endearment to his family, addresses politely spiteful remarks to his wife, and bluntly tells the kids what he thinks of them.

“ ‘Nicole, you’re behaving quite disgracefully.’

“The little girl is on the brink of tears—which is as it should be.

“This morning the small boy was all excitement about the rats, and started saying something on the subject.

“ ‘Philippe, one doesn’t talk of rats at table. For the future I forbid you to use the word.’

“ ‘Your father’s right,’ approved the mouse.

“The two poodles buried their noses in their plates, and the owl acknowledged thanks by a curt, perfunctory nod.

“This excellent example notwithstanding, everybody in town is talking about the rats, and the local newspaper has taken a hand. The town-topics column, usually very varied, is now devoted exclusively to a campaign against the local authorities. ‘Are our city fathers aware that the decaying bodies of these rodents constitute a grave danger to the population?’ The manager of the hotel can talk of nothing else. But he has a personal grievance, too; that dead rats should be found in the elevator of a three-star hotel seems to him the end of all things. To console him, I said: ‘But, you know, everybody’s in the same boat.’

“ ‘That’s just it,’ he replied. ‘Now we’re like everybody else.’

“He was the first to tell me about the outbreak of this queer kind of fever which is causing much alarm. One of his chambermaids has got it.

“ ‘But I feel sure it’s not contagious,’ he hastened to assure me.

“I told him it was all the same to me.

“ ‘Ah, I understand, sir. You’re like me, you’re a fatalist.’

“I had said nothing of the kind and, what’s more, am not a fatalist. I told him so.…”

From this point onwards Tarrou’s entries deal in some detail with the curious fever that was causing much anxiety among the public. When noting that the little old man, now that the rats had ceased appearing, had regained his cats and was studiously perfecting his shooting, Tarrou adds that a dozen or so cases of this fever were known to have occurred, and most had ended fatally.

For the light it may throw on the narrative that follows, Tarrou’s description of Dr. Rieux may be suitably inserted here. So far as the narrator can judge, it is fairly accurate.

“Looks about thirty-five. Moderate height. Broad shoulders. Almost rectangular face. Dark, steady eyes, but prominent jaws. A biggish, well-modeled nose. Black hair, cropped very close. A curving mouth with thick, usually tight-set lips. With his tanned skin, the black down on his hands and arms, the dark but becoming suits he always wears, he reminds one of a Sicilian peasant.

“He walks quickly. When crossing a street, he steps off the sidewalk without changing his pace, but two out of three times makes a little hop when he steps on to the sidewalk on the other side. He is absentminded and, when driving his car, often leaves his side-signals on after he has turned a corner. Always bareheaded. Looks knowledgeable.”

Tarrou’s figures were correct. Dr. Rieux was only too well aware of the serious turn things had taken. After seeing to the isolation of the concierge’s body, he had rung up Richard and asked what he made of these inguinal-fever cases.

“I can make nothing of them,” Richard confessed. “There have been two deaths, one in forty-eight hours, the other in three days. And the second patient showed all the signs of convalescence when I visited him on the second day.”

“Please let me know if you have other cases,” Rieux said.

He rang up some other colleagues. As a result of these inquiries he gathered that there had been some twenty cases of the same type within the last few days. Almost all had ended fatally. He then advised Richard, who was chairman of the local Medical Association, to have any fresh cases put into isolation wards.

“Sorry,” Richard said, “but I can’t do anything about it. An order to that effect can be issued only by the Prefect. Anyhow, what grounds have you for supposing there’s danger of contagion?”

“No definite grounds. But the symptoms are definitely alarming.”

Richard, however, repeated that “such measures were outside his province.” The most he could do was to put the matter up to the Prefect.

But while these talks were going on, the weather changed for the worse. On the day following old Michel’s death the sky clouded up and there were brief torrential downpours, each of which was followed by some hours of muggy heat. The aspect of the sea, too, changed; its dark-blue translucency had gone and, under the lowering sky, it had steely or silvery glints that hurt the eyes to look at. The damp heat of the spring made everyone long for the coming of the dry, clean summer heat. On the town, humped snail-wise on its plateau and shut off almost everywhere from the sea, a mood of listlessness descended. Hemmed in by lines and lines of whitewashed walls, walking between rows of dusty shops, or riding in the dingy yellow streetcars, you felt, as it were, trapped by the climate. This, however, was not the case with Rieux’s old Spanish patient, who welcomed this weather with enthusiasm.

“It cooks you,” he said. “Just the thing for asthma.”

Certainly it “cooked you,” but exactly like a fever. Indeed, the whole town was running a temperature; such anyhow was the impression Dr. Rieux could not shake off as he drove to the rue Faidherbe for the inquiry into Cottard’s attempted suicide. That this impression was unreasonable he knew, and he attributed it to nervous exhaustion; he had certainly his full share of worries just at present. In fact, it was high time to put the brakes on and try to get his nerves into some sort of order.

On reaching his destination he found that the police inspector hadn’t turned up yet. Grand, who met him on the landing, suggested they should wait in his place, leaving the door open. The municipal clerk had two rooms, both very sparsely furnished. The only objects to catch the eye were a bookshelf on which lay two or three dictionaries, and a small blackboard on which one could just read two half-obliterated words: “flowery avenues.”

Grand announced that Cottard had had a good night. But he’d waked up this morning with pains in his head and feeling very low. Grand, too, looked tired and overwrought; he kept pacing up and down the room, opening and closing a portfolio crammed with sheets of manuscript that lay on the table.

Meanwhile, however, he informed the doctor that he really knew very little about Cottard, but believed him to have private means in a small way. Cottard was a queer bird. For a long while their relations went no farther than wishing each other good-day when they met on the stairs.

“I’ve only had two conversations with him. Some days ago I upset a box of colored chalks I was bringing home, on the landing. They were red and blue chalks. Just then Cottard came out of his room and he helped me pick them up. He asked me what I wanted colored chalks for.”

Grand had then explained to him that he was trying to brush up his Latin. He’d learned it at school, of course, but his memories had grown blurred.

“You see, doctor, I’ve been told that a knowledge of Latin gives one a better understanding of the real meanings of French words.”

So he wrote Latin words on his blackboard, then copied out again in blue chalk the part of each word that changed in conjugation or declension, and in red chalk the part of the word that never varied.

“I’m not sure if Cottard followed this very clearly, but he seemed interested and asked me for a red chalk. That rather surprised me, but after all— Of course I couldn’t guess the use he’d put it to.”

Rieux asked what was the subject of their second conversation. But just then the inspector came, accompanied by a clerk, and said he wished to begin by hearing Grand’s statement. The doctor noticed that Grand, when referring to Cottard, always called him “the unfortunate man,” and at one moment used even the expression “his grim resolve.” When discussing the possible motives for the attempted suicide, Grand showed an almost finical anxiety over his choice of words. Finally he elected for the expression “a secret grief.” The inspector asked if there had been anything in Cottard’s manner that suggested what he called his “intent to felo-de-se.”

“He knocked at my door yesterday,” Grand said, “and asked me for a match. I gave him a box. He said he was sorry to disturb me but that, as we were neighbors, he hoped I wouldn’t mind. He assured me he’d bring back my box, but I told him to keep it.”

The inspector asked Grand if he’d noticed anything queer about Cottard.

“What struck me as queer was that he always seemed to want to start a conversation. But he should have seen I was busy with my work.” Grand turned to Rieux and added rather shyly: “Some private work.”

The inspector now said that he must see the invalid and hear what he had to say. Rieux thought it would be wiser to prepare Cottard for the visit. When he entered the bedroom he found Cottard, who was wearing a gray flannel nightshirt, sitting up in bed and gazing at the door with a scared expression on his face.

“It’s the police, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Rieux said, “but don’t get flustered. There are only some formalities to be gone through, and then you’ll be left in peace.”

Cottard replied that all this was quite needless, to his thinking, and anyhow he didn’t like the police.

Rieux showed some irritation.

“I don’t love them either. It’s only a matter of answering a few questions as briefly and correctly as you can, and then you’ll be through with it.”

Cottard said nothing and Rieux began to move to the door. He had hardly taken a step when the little man called him back and, as soon as he was at the bedside, gripped his hands.

“They can’t be rough with an invalid, a man who’s hanged himself, can they, Doctor?”

Rieux gazed down at him for a moment, then assured him that there was no question of anything like that, and in any case he was here to protect his patient. This seemed to relieve Cottard, and Rieux went out to get the inspector.

After Grand’s deposition had been read out, Cottard was asked to state the exact motive of his act. He merely replied, without looking at the police officer, that “a secret grief” described it well enough. The inspector then asked him peremptorily if he intended to “have another go at it.” Showing more animation, Cottard said certainly not, his one wish was to be left in peace.

“Allow me to point out, my man,” the police officer rejoined with asperity, “that just now it’s you who’re troubling the peace of others.” Rieux signed to him not to continue, and he left it at that.

“A good hour wasted!” the inspector sighed when the door closed behind them. “As you can guess, we’ve other things to think about, what with this fever everybody’s talking of.”

He then asked the doctor if there was any serious danger to the town; Rieux answered that he couldn’t say.

“It must be the weather,” the police officer decided. “That’s what it is.”

No doubt it was the weather. As the day wore on, everything grew sticky to the touch, and Rieux felt his anxiety increasing after each visit. That evening a neighbor of his old patient in the suburbs started vomiting, pressing his hand to his groin, and running a high fever accompanied by delirium. The ganglia were much bigger than M. Michel’s. One of them was beginning to suppurate, and presently split open like an overripe fruit. On returning to his apartment, Rieux rang up the medical-stores depot for the district. In his professional diary for the day the only entry was: “Negative reply.” Already he was receiving calls for similar cases from various parts of the town. Obviously the abscesses had to be lanced. Two crisscross strokes, and the ganglion disgorged a mixture of blood and pus. Their limbs stretched out as far as they could manage, the sick men went on bleeding. Dark patches appeared on their legs and stomachs; sometimes a ganglion would stop suppurating, then suddenly swell again. Usually the sick man died, in a stench of corruption.

The local press, so lavish of news about the rats, now had nothing to say. For rats died in the street; men in their homes. And newspapers are concerned only with the street. Meanwhile, government and municipal officials were putting their heads together. So long as each individual doctor had come across only two or three cases, no one had thought of taking action. But it was merely a matter of adding up the figures and, once this had been done, the total was startling. In a very few days the number of cases had risen by leaps and bounds, and it became evident to all observers of this strange malady that a real epidemic had set in. This was the state of affairs when Castel, one of Rieux’s colleagues and a much older man than he, came to see him.

“Naturally,” he said to Rieux, “you know what it is.”

“I’m waiting for the result of the post-mortems.”

“Well, I know. And I don’t need any post-mortems. I was in China for a good part of my career, and I saw some cases in Paris twenty years ago. Only no one dared to call them by their name on that occasion. The usual taboo, of course; the public mustn’t be alarmed, that wouldn’t do at all. And then, as one of my colleagues said, ‘It’s unthinkable. Everyone knows it’s ceased to appear in western Europe.’ Yes, everyone knew that—except the dead men. Come now, Rieux, you know as well as I do what it is.”

Rieux pondered. He was looking out of the window of his surgery, at the tall cliff that closed the half-circle of the bay on the far horizon. Though blue, the sky had a dull sheen that was softening as the light declined.

“Yes, Castel,” he replied. “It’s hardly credible. But everything points to its being plague.”

Castel got up and began walking toward the door.

“You know,” the old doctor said, “what they’re going to tell us? That it vanished from temperate countries long ago.”

“ ‘Vanished’? What does that word really mean?” Rieux shrugged his shoulders.

“Yes. And don’t forget. Just under twenty years ago, in Paris too.”

“Right. Let’s hope it won’t prove any worse this time than it did then. But really it’s incredible.”

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 great majority of our 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.

In fact, like our fellow citizens, Rieux was caught off his guard, and we should understand his hesitations in the light of this fact; and similarly understand how he was torn between conflicting fears and confidence. When a war breaks out, people say: “It’s too stupid; it can’t last long.” But though a war may well be “too stupid,” that doesn’t prevent its lasting. Stupidity has a knack of getting its way; as we should see if we were not always so much wrapped up in ourselves.

In this respect our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences. A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions. Our townsfolk were not more to blame than others; they forgot to be modest, that was all, and thought that everything still was possible for them; which presupposed that pestilences were impossible. They went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.

Indeed, even after Dr. Rieux had admitted in his friend’s company that a handful of persons, scattered about the town, had without warning died of plague, the danger still remained fantastically unreal. For the simple reason that, when a man is a doctor, he comes to have his own ideas of physical suffering, and to acquire somewhat more imagination than the average. Looking from his window at the town, outwardly quite unchanged, the doctor felt little more than a faint qualm for the future, a vague unease.

He tried to recall what he had read about the disease. Figures floated across his memory, and he recalled that some thirty or so great plagues known to history had accounted for nearly a hundred million deaths. But what are a hundred million deaths? When one has served in a war, one hardly knows what a dead man is, after a while. And since a dead man has no substance unless one has actually seen him dead, a hundred million corpses broadcast through history are no more than a puff of smoke in the imagination. The doctor remembered the plague at Constantinople that, according to Procopius, caused ten thousand deaths in a single day. Ten thousand dead made about five times the audience in a biggish cinema. Yes, that was how it should be done. You should collect the people at the exits of five picture-houses, you should lead them to a city square and make them die in heaps if you wanted to get a clear notion of what it means. Then at least you could add some familiar faces to the anonymous mass. But naturally that was impossible to put into practice; moreover, what man knows ten thousand faces? In any case the figures of those old historians, like Procopius, weren’t to be relied on; that was common knowledge. Seventy years ago, at Canton, forty thousand rats died of plague before the disease spread to the inhabitants. But, again, in the Canton epidemic there was no reliable way of counting up the rats. A very rough estimate was all that could be made, with, obviously, a wide margin for error. “Let’s see,” the doctor murmured to himself, “supposing the length of a rat to be ten inches, forty thousand rats placed end to end would make a line of …”

He pulled himself up sharply. He was letting his imagination play pranks—the last thing wanted just now. A few cases, he told himself, don’t make an epidemic; they merely call for serious precautions. He must fix his mind, first of all, on the observed facts: stupor and extreme prostration, buboes, intense thirst, delirium, dark blotches on the body, internal dilatation, and, in conclusion … In conclusion, some words came back to the doctor’s mind; aptly enough, the concluding sentence of the description of the symptoms given in his medical handbook: “The pulse becomes fluttering, dicrotic, and intermittent, and death ensues as the result of the slightest movement.” Yes, in conclusion, the patient’s life hung on a thread, and three people out of four (he remembered the exact figures) were too impatient not to make the very slight movement that snapped the thread.

The doctor was still looking out of the window. Beyond it lay the tranquil radiance of a cool spring sky; inside the room a word was echoing still, the word “plague.” A word that conjured up in the doctor’s mind not only what science chose to put into it, but a whole series of fantastic possibilities utterly out of keeping with that gray and yellow town under his eyes, from which were rising the sounds of mild activity characteristic of the hour; a drone rather than a bustling, the noises of a happy town, in short, if it’s possible to be at once so dull and happy. A tranquillity so casual and thoughtless seemed almost effortlessly to give the lie to those old pictures of the plague: Athens, a charnel-house reeking to heaven and deserted even by the birds; Chinese towns cluttered up with victims silent in their agony; the convicts at Marseille piling rotting corpses into pits; the building of the Great Wall in Provence to fend off the furious plague-wind; the damp, putrefying pallets stuck to the mud floor at the Constantinople lazar-house, where the patients were hauled up from their beds with hooks; the carnival of masked doctors at the Black Death; men and women copulating in the cemeteries of Milan; cartloads of dead bodies rumbling through London’s ghoul-haunted darkness—nights and days filled always, everywhere, with the eternal cry of human pain. No, all those horrors were not near enough as yet even to ruffle the equanimity of that spring afternoon. The clang of an unseen streetcar came through the window, briskly refuting cruelty and pain. Only the sea, murmurous behind the dingy checkerboard of houses, told of the unrest, the precariousness, of all things in this world. And, gazing in the direction of the bay, Dr. Rieux called to mind the plague-fires of which Lucretius tells, which the Athenians kindled on the seashore. The dead were brought there after nightfall, but there was not room enough, and the living fought one another with torches for a space where to lay those who had been dear to them; for they had rather engage in bloody conflicts than abandon their dead to the waves. A picture rose before him of the red glow of the pyres mirrored on a wine-dark, slumbrous sea, battling torches whirling sparks across the darkness, and thick, fetid smoke rising toward the watchful sky. Yes, it was not beyond the bounds of possibility.…

But these extravagant forebodings dwindled in the light of reason. True, the word “plague” had been uttered; true, at this very moment one or two victims were being seized and laid low by the disease. Still, that could stop, or be stopped. It was only a matter of lucidly recognizing what had to be recognized; of dispelling extraneous shadows and doing what needed to be done. Then the plague would come to an end, because it was unthinkable, or, rather, because one thought of it on misleading lines. If, as was most likely, it died out, all would be well. If not, one would know it anyhow for what it was and what steps should be taken for coping with and finally overcoming it.

The doctor opened the window, and at once the noises of the town grew louder. The brief, intermittent sibilance of a machine-saw came from a near-by workshop. Rieux pulled himself together. There lay certitude; there, in the daily round. All the rest hung on mere threads and trivial contingencies; you couldn’t waste your time on it. The thing was to do your job as it should be done.

The doctor’s musings had reached this point when the visit of Joseph Grand was announced. Grand’s duties as clerk in the Municipal Office were varied, and he was sometimes employed in the statistical department on compiling the figures of births, marriages, and deaths. Thus it had fallen to him to add up the number of deaths during the last few days, and, being of an obliging disposition, he had volunteered to bring a copy of the latest figures to the doctor.

Grand, who was waving a sheet of paper, was accompanied by his neighbor, Cottard.

“The figures are going up, doctor. Eleven deaths in forty-eight hours.”

Rieux shook hands with Cottard and asked him how he was feeling. Grand put in a word explaining that Cottard was bent on thanking the doctor and apologizing for the trouble he had given. But Rieux was gazing frowningly at the figures on the sheet of paper.

“Well,” he said, “perhaps we’d better make up our minds to call this disease by its name. So far we’ve been only shilly-shallying. Look here, I’m off to the laboratory; like to come with me?”

“Quite so, quite so,” Grand said as he went down the stairs at the doctor’s heels. “I, too, believe in calling things by their name. But what’s the name in this case?”

“That I shan’t say, and anyhow you wouldn’t gain anything by knowing.”

“You see,” Grand smiled. “It’s not so easy after all!”

They started off toward the Place d’Armes. Cottard still kept silent. The streets were beginning to fill up. The brief dusk of our town was already giving place to night, and the first stars glimmered above the still clearly marked horizon. A few moments later all the street-lamps went on, dimming the sky, and the voices in the street seemed to rise a tone.

“Excuse me,” Grand said at the corner of the Place d’Armes, “but I must catch my car now. My evenings are sacred. As we say in my part of the world: ‘Never put off to tomorrow—’ ”

Rieux had already noticed Grand’s trick of professing to quote some turn of speech from “his part of the world” (he hailed from Montélimar), and following up with some such hackneyed expression as “lost in dreams,” or “pretty as a picture.”

“That’s so,” Cottard put in. “You can never budge him from his den after dinner.”

Rieux asked Grand if he was doing extra work for the municipality. Grand said no, he was working on his own account.

“Really?” Rieux said, to keep the conversation going. “And are you getting on well with it?”

“Considering I’ve been at it for years, it would be surprising if I wasn’t. Though in one sense there hasn’t been much progress.”

“May one know”—the doctor halted—“what it is that you’re engaged on?”

Grand put a hand up to his hat and tugged it down upon his big, protruding ears, then murmured some half-inaudible remark from which Rieux seemed to gather that Grand’s work was connected with “the growth of a personality.” Then he turned rather hastily and a moment later was hurrying, with short, quick steps, under the fig trees lining the boulevard de la Marne.

When they were at the laboratory gate, Cottard told the doctor that he would greatly like to see him and ask his advice about something. Rieux, who was fingering in his pocket the sheet of paper with the figures on it, said he’d better call during his consulting-hours; then, changing his mind, told him he would be in his part of the town next day and would drop in to see him at the end of the afternoon.

On leaving Cottard the doctor noticed that he was thinking of Grand, trying to picture him in the midst of an outbreak of plague—not an outbreak like the present one, which would probably not prove serious, but like one of the great visitations of the past. “He’s the kind of man who always escapes in such cases.” Rieux remembered having read somewhere that the plague spared weak constitutions and chose its victims chiefly among the robust. Still thinking of Grand, he decided that he was something of a “mystery man” in his small way.

True, at first sight, Grand manifested both the outward signs and typical manner of a humble employee in the local administration. Tall and thin, he seemed lost in the garments that he always chose a size too large, under the illusion that they would wear longer. Though he still had most of the teeth in his lower jaw, all the upper ones were gone, with the result that when he smiled, raising his upper lip—the lower scarcely moved—his mouth looked like a small black hole let into his face. Also he had the walk of a shy young priest, sidling along walls and slipping mouselike into doorways, and he exuded a faint odor of smoke and basement rooms; in short, he had all the attributes of insignificance. Indeed, it cost an effort to picture him otherwise than bent over a desk, studiously revising the tariff of the town baths or gathering for a junior secretary the materials of a report on the new garbage-collection tax. Even before you knew what his employment was, you had a feeling that he’d been brought into the world for the sole purpose of performing the discreet but needful duties of a temporary assistant municipal clerk on a salary of sixty-two francs, thirty centimes a day.

This was, in fact, the entry that he made each month in the staff register at the Municipal Office, in the column Post in Which Employed. When twenty-two years previously—after obtaining a matriculation certificate beyond which, for lack of money, he was unable to progress—he was given this temporary post, he had been led to expect, or so he said, speedy “confirmation” in it. It was only a matter of proving his ability to cope with the delicate problems raised by the administration of our city. Once confirmed, they had assured him, he couldn’t fail to be promoted to a grade that would enable him to live quite comfortably. Ambition, certainly, was not the spur that activated Joseph Grand; that he would swear to, wryly smiling. All he desired was the prospect of a life suitably insured on the material side by honest work, enabling him to devote his leisure to his hobbies. If he’d accepted the post offered him, it was from honorable motives and, if he might say so, loyalty to an ideal.

But this “temporary” state of things had gone on and on, the cost of living rose by leaps and bounds, and Grand’s pay, in spite of some statutory rises, was still a mere pittance. He had confided this to Rieux, but nobody else seemed aware of his position. And here lies Grand’s originality, or anyhow an indication of it. He could certainly have brought to official notice, if not his rights—of which he wasn’t sure—at least the promises given him. But, for one thing, the departmental head who had made them had been dead for some time and, furthermore, Grand no longer remembered their exact terms. And lastly—this was the real trouble—Joseph Grand couldn’t find his words.

This peculiarity, as Rieux had noticed, was really the key to the personality of our worthy fellow citizen. And this it was which always prevented him from writing the mildly protesting letter he had in mind, or taking the steps the situation called for. According to him, he felt a particular aversion from talking about his “rights”—the word was one that gave him pause—and likewise from mentioning a “promise”—which would have implied that he was claiming his due and thus bespoken an audacity incompatible with the humble post he filled. On the other hand, he refused to use expressions such as “your kindness,” “gratitude,” or even “solicit,” which, to his thinking, were incompatible with his personal dignity. Thus, owing to his inability to find the right words, he had gone on performing his obscure, ill-paid duties until a somewhat advanced age. Also—this, anyhow, was what he told Dr. Rieux—he had come, after long experience, to realize that he could always count on living within his means; all he had to do was to scale down his needs to his income. Thus he confirmed the wisdom of an opinion often voiced by our mayor, a business magnate of the town, when he insisted vehemently that in the last analysis (he emphasized this choice expression, which indeed clinched his argument) there was no reason to believe that anyone had ever died of hunger in the town. In any case, the austere, not to say ascetic life of Joseph Grand was, in the last analysis, a guarantee against any anxiety in this respect. He went on looking for his words.

In a certain sense it might well be said that his was an exemplary life. He was one of those rare people, rare in our town as elsewhere, who have the courage of their good feelings. What little he told of his personal life vouched for acts of kindness and a capacity for affection that no one in our times dares own to. Without a blush he confessed to dearly loving his nephews and sister, his only surviving near relation, whom he went to France to visit every other year. He admitted that the thought of his parents, whom he lost when he was very young, often gave him a pang. He did not conceal the fact that he had a special affection for a church bell in his part of the town which started pealing very melodiously at about five every afternoon. Yet to express such emotions, simple as they were, the least word cost him a terrible effort. 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, it flashed on the doctor what it was that Grand was trying to convey; he was evidently writing a book or something of the sort. And quaintly enough, as he made his way to the laboratory, this thought reassured him. 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. To be precise, he couldn’t picture such eccentricities existing in a plague-stricken community, and he concluded that the chances were all against the plague’s making any headway among our fellow citizens.

Next day, by dint of a persistence that many thought ill-advised, Rieux persuaded the authorities to convene a health committee at the Prefect’s office.

“People in town are getting nervous, that’s a fact,” Dr. Richard admitted. “And of course all sorts of wild rumors are going round. The Prefect said to me, ‘Take prompt action if you like, but don’t attract attention.’ He personally is convinced that it’s a false alarm.”

Rieux gave Castel a lift to the Prefect’s office.

“Do you know,” Castel said when they were in the car, “that we haven’t a gram of serum in the whole district?”

“I know. I rang up the depot. The director seemed quite startled. It’ll have to be sent from Paris.”

“Let’s hope they’re quick about it.”

“I sent a wire yesterday,” Rieux said.

The Prefect greeted them amiably enough, but one could see his nerves were on edge.

“Let’s make a start, gentlemen,” he said. “Need I review the situation?”

Richard thought that wasn’t necessary. He and his colleagues were acquainted with the facts. The only question was what measures should be adopted.

“The question,” old Castel cut in almost rudely, “is to know whether it’s plague or not.”

Two or three of the doctors present protested. The others seemed to hesitate. The Prefect gave a start and hurriedly glanced toward the door to make sure it had prevented this outrageous remark from being overheard in the corridor. Richard said that in his opinion the great thing was not to take an alarmist view. All that could be said at present was that we had to deal with a special type of fever, with inguinal complications; in medical science, as in daily life, it was unwise to jump to conclusions. Old Castel, who was placidly chewing his draggled yellow mustache, raised his pale, bright eyes and gazed at Rieux. Then, after sweeping the other members of the committee with a friendly glance, he said that he knew quite well that it was plague and, needless to say, he also knew that, were this to be officially admitted, the authorities would be compelled to take very drastic steps. This was, of course, the explanation of his colleagues’ reluctance to face the facts and, if it would ease their minds, he was quite prepared to say it wasn’t plague. The Prefect seemed ruffled and remarked that, in any case, this line of argument seemed to him unsound.

“The important thing,” Castel replied, “isn’t the soundness or otherwise of the argument, but for it to make you think.”

Rieux, who had said nothing so far, was asked for his opinion.

“We are dealing,” he said, “with a fever of a typhoidal nature, accompanied by vomiting and buboes. I have incised these buboes and had the pus analyzed; our laboratory analyst believes he has identified the plague bacillus. But I am bound to add that there are specific modifications that don’t quite tally with the classical description of the plague bacillus.”

Richard pointed out that this justified a policy of wait-and-see; anyhow, it would be wise to await the statistical report on the series of analyses that had been going on for several days.

“When a microbe,” Rieux said, “after a short intermission can quadruple in three days’ time the volume of the spleen, can swell the mesenteric ganglia to the size of an orange and give them the consistency of gruel, a policy of wait-and-see is, to say the least of it, unwise. The foci of infection are steadily extending. Judging by the rapidity with which the disease is spreading, it may well, unless we can stop it, kill off half the town before two months are out. That being so, it has small importance whether you call it plague or some rare kind of fever. The important thing is to prevent its killing off half the population of this town.”

Richard said it was a mistake to paint too gloomy a picture, and, moreover, the disease hadn’t been proved to be contagious; indeed, relatives of his patients, living under the same roof, had escaped it.

“But others have died,” Rieux observed. “And obviously contagion is never absolute; otherwise you’d have a constant mathematical progression and the death-rate would rocket up catastrophically. It’s not a question of painting too black a picture. It’s a question of taking precautions.”

Richard, however, summing up the situation as he saw it, pointed out that if the epidemic did not cease spontaneously, it would be necessary to apply the rigorous prophylactic measures laid down in the Code. And, to do this, it would be necessary to admit officially that plague had broken out. But of this there was no absolute certainty; therefore any hasty action was to be deprecated.

Rieux stuck to his guns. “The point isn’t whether the measures provided for in the Code are rigorous, but whether they are needful to prevent the death of half the population. All the rest is a matter of administrative action, and I needn’t remind you that our constitution has provided for such emergencies by empowering prefects to issue the necessary orders.”

“Quite true,” the Prefect assented, “but I shall need your professional declaration that the epidemic is one of plague.”

“If we don’t make that declaration,” Rieux said, “there’s a risk that half the population may be wiped out.”

Richard cut in with some impatience.

“The truth is that our colleague is convinced it’s plague; his description of the syndrome proved it.”

Rieux replied that he had not described a “syndrome,” but merely what he’d seen with his own eyes. And what he’d seen was buboes, and high fever accompanied by delirium, ending fatally within forty-eight hours. Could Dr. Richard take the responsibility of declaring that the epidemic would die out without the imposition of rigorous prophylactic measures?

Richard hesitated, then fixed his eyes on Rieux.

“Please answer me quite frankly. Are you absolutely convinced it’s plague?”

“You’re stating the problem wrongly. It’s not a question of the term I use; it’s a question of time.”

“Your view, I take it,” the Prefect put in, “is this. Even if it isn’t plague, the prophylactic measures enjoined by law for coping with a state of plague should be put into force immediately?”

“If you insist on my having a ‘view,’ that conveys it accurately enough.”

The doctors confabulated. Richard was their spokesman:

“It comes to this. We are to take the responsibility of acting as though the epidemic were plague.”

This way of putting it met with general approval.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Rieux said, “how you phrase it. My point is that we should not act as if there were no likelihood that half the population would be wiped out; for then it would be.”

Followed by scowls and protestations, Rieux left the committee-room. Some minutes later, as he was driving down a back street redolent of fried fish and urine, a woman screaming in agony, her groin dripping blood, stretched out her arms toward him.

On the day after the committee meeting the fever notched another small advance. It even found its way into the papers, but discreetly; only a few brief references to it were made. On the following day, however, Rieux observed that small official notices had been just put up about the town, though in places where they would not attract much attention. It was hard to find in these notices any indication that the authorities were facing the situation squarely. The measures enjoined were far from Draconian and one had the feeling that many concessions had been made to a desire not to alarm the public. The instructions began with a bald statement that a few cases of a malignant fever had been reported in Oran; it was not possible as yet to say if this fever was contagious. The symptoms were not so marked as to be really perturbing and the authorities felt sure they could rely on the townspeople to treat the situation with composure. None the less, guided by a spirit of prudence that all would appreciate, the Prefect was putting into force some precautionary measures. If these measures were carefully studied and properly applied, they would obviate any risk of an epidemic. This being so, the Prefect felt no doubt that everybody in his jurisdiction would wholeheartedly second his personal efforts.

The notice outlined the general program that the authorities had drawn up. It included a systematic extermination of the rat population by injecting poison gas into the sewers, and a strict supervision of the water-supply. The townspeople were advised to practice extreme cleanliness, and any who found fleas on their person were directed to call at the municipal dispensaries. Also heads of households were ordered promptly to report any fever case diagnosed by their doctors and to permit the isolation of sick members of their families in special wards at the hospital. These wards, it was explained, were equipped to provide patients with immediate treatment and ensure the maximum prospect of recovery. Some supplementary regulations enjoined compulsory disinfection of the sickroom and of the vehicle in which the patient traveled. For the rest, the Prefect confined himself to advising all who had been in contact with the patient to consult the sanitary inspector and strictly to follow his advice.

Dr. Rieux swung round brusquely from the poster and started back to his surgery. Grand, who was awaiting him there, raised his arms dramatically when the doctor entered.

“Yes,” Rieux said, “I know. The figures are rising.”

On the previous day ten deaths had been reported. The doctor told Grand that he might be seeing him in the evening, as he had promised to visit Cottard.

“An excellent idea,” Grand said. “You’ll do him good. As a matter of fact, I find him greatly changed.”

“In what way?”

“He’s become amiable.”

“Wasn’t he amiable before?”

Grand seemed at a loss. He couldn’t say that Cottard used to be unamiable; the term wouldn’t have been correct. But Cottard was a silent, secretive man, with something about him that made Grand think of a wild boar. His bedroom, meals at a cheap restaurant, some rather mysterious comings and goings—these were the sum of Cottard’s days. He described himself as a traveling salesman in wines and spirits. Now and then he was visited by two or three men, presumably customers. Sometimes in the evening he would go to a movie across the way. In this connection Grand mentioned a detail he had noticed—that Cottard seemed to have a preference for gangster films. But the thing that had struck him most about the man was his aloofness, not to say his mistrust of everyone he met.

And now, so Grand said, there had been a complete change.

“I don’t quite know how to put it, but I must say I’ve an impression that he is trying to make himself agreeable to all and sundry, to be in everybody’s good books. Nowadays he often talks to me, he suggests we should go out together, and I can’t bring myself to refuse. What’s more, he interests me, and of course I saved his life.”

Since his attempt at suicide Cottard had had no more visitors. In the streets, in shops, he was always trying to strike up friendships. To the grocer he was all affability; no one could take more pains than he to show his interest in the tobacconist’s gossip.

“This particular tobacconist—a woman, by the way,” Grand explained, “is a holy terror. I told Cottard so, but he replied that I was prejudiced and she had plenty of good points, only one had to find them out.”

On two or three occasions Cottard had invited Grand to come with him to the luxury restaurants and cafés of the town, which he had recently taken to patronizing.

“There’s a pleasant atmosphere in them,” he explained, “and then one’s in good company.”

Grand noticed that the staff made much of Cottard and he soon discovered why, when he saw the lavish tips his companion gave. The traveling salesman seemed greatly to appreciate the amiability shown him in return for his largesse. One day when the head waiter had escorted him to the door and helped him into his overcoat, Cottard said to Grand:

“He’s a nice fellow, and he’d make a good witness.”

“A witness? I don’t follow.”

Cottard hesitated before answering.

“Well, he could say I’m not really a bad kind of man.”

But his humor had its ups and downs. One day when the grocer had shown less affability, he came home in a tearing rage.

“He’s siding with the others, the swine!”

“With what others?”

“The whole damned lot of them.”

Grand had personally witnessed an odd scene that took place at the tobacconist’s. An animated conversation was in progress and the woman behind the counter started airing her views about a murder case that had created some stir in Algiers. A young commercial employee had killed an Algerian on a beach.

“I always say,” the woman began, “if they clapped all that scum in jail, decent folks could breathe more freely.”

She was too much startled by Cottard’s reaction—he dashed out of the shop without a word of excuse—to continue. Grand and the woman gazed after him, dumbfounded.

Subsequently Grand reported to the doctor other changes in Cottard’s character. Cottard had always professed very liberal ideas, as his pet dictum on economic questions, “Big fish eat little fish,” implied. But now the only Oran newspaper he bought was the conservative organ, and one could hardly help suspecting that he made a point of reading it in public places. Somewhat of the same order was a request he made to Grand shortly before he left his sick-bed; Grand mentioned he was going to the post office and Cottard asked him to be kind enough to dispatch a money order for a hundred francs to a sister living at a distance, mentioning that he sent her this sum every month. Then, just when Grand was leaving the room, he called him back.

“No, send her two hundred francs. That’ll be a nice surprise for her. She believes I never give her a thought. But actually I’m devoted to her.”

Not long after this he made some curious remarks to Grand in the course of conversation. He had badgered Grand into telling him about the somewhat mysterious “private work” to which Grand gave his evenings.

“I know!” Cottard exclaimed. “You’re writing a book, aren’t you?”

“Something of the kind. But it’s not so simple as that.”

“Ah!” Cottard sighed. “I only wish I had a knack for writing.”

When Grand showed his surprise, Cottard explained with some embarrassment that being a literary man must make things easier in lots of ways.

“Why?” Grand asked.

“Why, because an author has more rights than ordinary people, as everybody knows. People will stand much more from him.”

“It looks,” said Rieux to Grand on the morning when the official notices were posted, “as if this business of the rats had addled his brain, as it has done for so many other people. That’s all it is. Or perhaps he’s scared of the ‘fever.’ ”

“I doubt it, Doctor. If you want to know my opinion, he—”

He paused; with a machine-gun rattle from its exhaust the “deratization” van was clattering by. Rieux kept silent until it was possible to make himself audible, then asked, without much interest, what Grand’s opinion was.

“He’s a man with something pretty serious on his conscience,” Grand said gravely.

The doctor shrugged his shoulders. As the inspector had said, he’d other fish to fry.

That afternoon Rieux had another talk with Castel. The serum had not yet come.

“In any case,” Rieux said, “I wonder if it will be much use. This bacillus is such a queer one.”

“There,” Castel said, “I don’t agree with you. These little brutes always have an air of originality. But, at bottom, it’s always the same thing.”

“That’s your theory, anyhow. Actually, of course, we know next to nothing on the subject.”

“I grant you, it’s only my theory. Still, in a sense, that goes for everybody.”

Throughout the day the doctor was conscious that the slightly dazed feeling that came over him whenever he thought about the plague was growing more pronounced. Finally he realized that he was afraid! On two occasions he entered crowded cafés. Like Cottard he felt a need for friendly contacts, human warmth. A stupid instinct, Rieux told himself; still, it served to remind him that he’d promised to visit the traveling salesman.

Cottard was standing beside the dining-table when the doctor entered his room that evening. A detective story lay open on the tablecloth. But the night was closing in and it would have been difficult to read in the growing darkness. Most likely Cottard had been sitting musing in the twilight until he heard the ring at his door. Rieux asked how he was feeling. Cottard sat down and replied rather grumpily that he was feeling tolerably well, adding that he’d feel still better if only he could be sure of being left in peace. Rieux remarked that one couldn’t always be alone.

“That’s not what I meant. I was thinking of people who take an interest in you only to make trouble for you.” When Rieux said nothing, he went on: “Mind you, that’s not my case. Only I’ve been reading that detective story. It’s about a poor devil who’s arrested one fine morning, all of a sudden. People had been taking an interest in him and he knew nothing about it. They were talking about him in offices, entering his name on card indexes. Now, do you think that’s fair? Do you think people have a right to treat a man like that?”

“Well,” Rieux said, “that depends. In one sense I agree, nobody has the right. But all that’s beside the mark. What’s important is for you to go out a bit. It’s a mistake staying indoors too much.”

Cottard seemed vexed and said that on the contrary he was always going out, and, if need arose, all the people in the street could vouch for him. What’s more, he knew lots of people in other parts of the town.

“Do you know Monsieur Rigaud, the architect? He’s a friend of mine.”

The room was in almost complete darkness. Outside, the street was growing noisier and a sort of murmur of relief greeted the moment when all the street-lamps lit up, all together. Rieux went out on the balcony, and Cottard followed him. From the outlying districts—as happens every evening in our town—a gentle breeze wafted a murmur of voices, smells of roasting meat, a gay, perfumed tide of freedom sounding on its way, as the streets filled up with noisy young people released from shops and offices. Nightfall, with its deep, remote baying of unseen ships, the rumor rising from the sea, and the happy tumult of the crowd—that first hour of darkness which in the past had always had a special charm for Rieux—seemed today charged with menace, because of all he knew.

“How about turning on the lights?” he suggested when they went back into the room.

After this had been done, the little man gazed at him, blinking his eyes.

“Tell me, Doctor. Suppose I fell ill, would you put me in your ward at the hospital?”

“Why not?”

Cottard then inquired if it ever happened that a person in a hospital or a nursing home was arrested. Rieux said it had been known to happen, but all depended on the invalid’s condition.

“You know, Doctor,” Cottard said, “I’ve confidence in you.” Then he asked the doctor if he’d be kind enough to give him a lift, as he was going into town.

In the center of the town the streets were already growing less crowded and the lights fewer. Children were playing in front of the doorways. At Cottard’s request the doctor stopped his car beside one of the groups of children. They were playing hopscotch and making a great deal of noise. One of them, a boy with sleek, neatly parted hair and a grubby face, stared hard at Rieux with bright, bold eyes. The doctor looked away. Standing on the sidewalk Cottard shook his head. He then said in a hoarse, rather labored voice, casting uneasy glances over his shoulder: “Everybody’s talking about an epidemic. Is there anything in it, Doctor?”

“People always talk,” Rieux replied. “That’s only to be expected.”

“You’re right. And if we have ten deaths they’ll think it’s the end of the world. But it’s not that we need here.”

The engine was ticking over. Rieux had his hand on the clutch. But he was looking again at the boy who was still watching him with an oddly grave intentness. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the child smiled, showing all his teeth.

“Yes? And what do we need here?” Rieux asked, returning the child’s smile.

Abruptly Cottard gripped the door of the car and, as he turned to go, almost shouted in a rageful, passionate voice: “An earthquake! A big one!”

There was no earthquake, and the whole of the following day was spent, so far as Rieux was concerned, in long drives to every corner of the town, in parleyings with the families of the sick and arguments with the invalids themselves. Never had Rieux known his profession to weigh on him so heavily. Hitherto his patients had helped to lighten his task; they gladly put themselves into his hands. For the first time the doctor felt they were keeping aloof, wrapping themselves up in their malady with a sort of bemused hostility. It was a struggle to which he wasn’t yet accustomed. And when, at ten that evening, he parked his car outside the home of his old asthma patient—his last visit of the day—it was an effort for Rieux to drag himself from his seat. For some moments he lingered, gazing up the dark street, watching the stars appear and disappear in the blackness of the sky.

When Rieux entered the room, the old man was sitting up in bed, at his usual occupation, counting out dried peas from one pan to another. On seeing his visitor, he looked up, beaming with delight.

“Well, Doctor? It’s cholera, isn’t it?”

“Where on earth did you get that idea from?”

“It’s in the paper, and the radio said it, too.”

“No, it’s not cholera.”

“Anyhow,” the old man chuckled excitedly, “the big bugs are laying it on thick. Got the jitters, haven’t they?”

“Don’t you believe a word of it,” the doctor said.

He had examined the old man and now was sitting in the middle of the dingy little dining-room. Yes, despite what he had said, he was afraid. He knew that in this suburb alone eight or ten unhappy people, cowering over their buboes, would be awaiting his visit next morning. In only two or three cases had incision of the buboes caused any improvement. For most of them it would mean going to the hospital, and he knew how poor people feel about hospitals. “I don’t want them trying their experiments on him,” had said the wife of one of his patients. But he wouldn’t be experimented on; he would die, that was all. That the regulations now in force were inadequate was lamentably clear. As for the “specially equipped” wards, he knew what they amounted to: two outbuildings from which the other patients had been hastily evacuated, whose windows had been hermetically sealed, and round which a sanitary cordon had been set. The only hope was that the outbreak would die a natural death; it certainly wouldn’t be arrested by the measures the authorities had so far devised.

Nevertheless, that night the official communiqué was still optimistic. On the following day Ransdoc announced that the rules laid down by the local administration had won general approval and already thirty sick persons had reported. Castel rang up Rieux.

“How many beds are there in the special wards?”


“Surely there are far more than thirty cases in the town?”

“Don’t forget there are two sorts of cases: those who take fright, and those—they’re the majority—who don’t have time to do so.”

“I see. Are they checking up on the burials?”

“No. I told Richard over the phone that energetic measures were needed, not just words; we’d got to set up a real barrier against the disease, otherwise we might just as well do nothing.”

“Yes? And what did he say?”

“Nothing doing. He hadn’t the powers. In my opinion, it’s going to get worse.”

That was so. Within three days both wards were full. According to Richard, there was talk of requisitioning a school and opening an auxiliary hospital. Meanwhile Rieux continued incising buboes and waiting for the anti-plague serum. Castel went back to his old books and spent long hours in the public library.

“Those rats died of plague,” was his conclusion, “or of something extremely like it. And they’ve loosed on the town tens of thousands of fleas, which will spread the infection in geometrical progression unless it’s checked in time.”

Rieux said nothing.

About this time the weather appeared set fair, and the sun had drawn up the last puddles left by the recent rain. There was a serene blue sky flooded with golden light each morning, with sometimes a drone of planes in the rising heat—all seemed well with the world. And yet within four days the fever had made four startling strides: sixteen deaths, twenty-four, twenty-eight, and thirty-two. On the fourth day the opening of the auxiliary hospital in the premises of a primary school was officially announced. The