Zhang was overcome by the futility of any farther attempt to inculpate himself. He was handcuffed to life—a “prisoner of consciousness.” Where was it he had read the phrase? Well he was learning what it meant. In the glaring night-hours, when his brain seemed ablaze, he was visited by a sense of his fixed identity, of his irreducible, inexpugnable selfness, keener, more insidious, more unescapable, than any sensation he had ever known. He had not guessed that the mind was capable of such intricacies of self-realization, of penetrating so deep into its own dark windings. Often he woke from his brief snatches of sleep with the feeling that something material was clinging to him, was on his hands and face, and in his throat—and as his brain cleared he understood that it was the sense of his own loathed personality that stuck to him like some thick viscous substance.
Then, in the first morning hours, he rose from his comfortable bed in his Denizen apartment and looked out of his window at the awakening activities on Golden Lane—at the street-cleaners, bin men, and the other dingy workers flitting hurriedly by through the sallow winter light. Oh, to be one of them—any of them—to take his chance in any of their skins! They were the toilers—the men whose lot was pitied—the victims wept over and ranted about by altruists and economists; and how gladly he would have taken up the load of any one of them, if only he might have shaken off his own! But, no—the iron circle of consciousness held them too: each one was chained to his own hideous ego. Why wish to be any one man rather than another? The only absolute good was not to be.
For the first time since his decision to tell Yao Wenyuan he was a murderer, Zhang found himself without an occupation, and understood that he had been carried through the past weeks only by the necessity of constant action. Now his life had once more become a stagnant backwater, and as he stood on the corner of Golden Lane and Fann Street watching the tides of traffic sweep by, he asked himself despairingly how much longer he could endure to float about in the sluggish circle of his consciousness.
The thought of self-destruction recurred to him; but again his flesh recoiled. He yearned for death from other hands, but he could never take it from his own. And, aside from his insuperable physical reluctance, another motive restrained him. He was possessed by the dogged desire to establish the truth of his story. He refused to be swept aside as an irresponsible dreamer—even if he had to kill himself in the end, he would not do so before proving to society that he had deserved death from it.
Yao came to see him and begged him to rest. Wang Hongwen dropped in and tried to joke him out of his delusion; till Zhang, mistrustful of their motives, began to dread their visits and set a guard on his lips. But the words he kept back engendered others and still others in his brain. His inner self became a humming factory of arguments, and he spent long hours reciting and writing down elaborate statements of his crime, which he constantly retouched and developed. Then gradually his activity languished under the lack of an audience, the sense of being buried beneath deepening drifts of indifference. In a passion of resentment he swore that he would prove himself a murderer, even if he had to commit another crime to do it; and for a sleepless night or two the thought flamed red on his darkness. But daylight dispelled it. The determining impulse was lacking and he hated too promiscuously to choose his victim… So he was thrown back on the unavailing struggle to impose the truth of his story. As fast as one channel closed on him he tried to pierce another through the sliding sands of incredulity. But every issue seemed blocked, and the whole human race leagued together to cheat one man of the right to die. Even Mistress Ilsa who repeatedly promised to kill him, would never actually carry out the threat no matter how much he offered to pay her!
Thus viewed, the situation became so monstrous that he lost his last shred of self-restraint in contemplating it. What if he were really the victim of some mocking experiment, the centre of a ring of holiday-makers jeering at a poor creature in its blind dashes against the solid walls of consciousness? But, no—men were not so uniformly cruel: there were flaws in the close surface of their indifference, cracks of weakness and pity here and there…
Zhang began to think that his mistake lay in having appealed to persons more or less familiar with his past, and to whom the visible conformities of his life seemed a final disproof of its one fierce secret deviation. The general tendency was to take for the whole of life the slit seen between the blinders of habit: and in his walk down that narrow vista Zhang cut a correct enough figure. To a vision free to follow his whole orbit his story would be more intelligible: it would be easier to convince a chance idler in the street than the trained intelligence hampered by a sense of his antecedents. This idea shot up in him with the tropic luxuriance of each new seed of thought, and he began to walk the streets, and to frequent out-of-the-way noodle-houses and bars in his search for the impartial stranger to whom he should disclose himself.
At first every face looked encouragement, but at the crucial moment he always held back. So much was at stake and it was so essential that his first choice should be decisive. He dreaded stupidity, timidity, intolerance. The imaginative eye, the furrowed brow, were what he sought. He must reveal himself only to a heart versed in the tortuous motions of the human will. He began to hate the dull benevolence of the average face. Once or twice, obscurely, allusively, he made a beginning—once sitting down at a man’s side in a basement noodle-house, another day approaching a lounger on a park bench. But in both cases the premonition of failure checked him on the brink of avowal. His dread of being taken for a man in the clutch of a fixed idea gave him an unnatural keenness in reading the expression of his interlocutors, and he had provided himself in advance with a series of verbal alternatives, trap-doors of evasion from the first dart of ridicule or suspicion.
He passed the greater part of the day in the streets, coming home to The Denizen at irregular hours, dreading the orderliness of his apartment, and the empty, silent, ghost flats in the rest of the block. His real life was spent in a world so remote from this familiar setting that he sometimes had the mysterious sense of a living metempsychosis, a furtive passage from one identity to another—yet the other as unescapably himself!
One humiliation he was spared, the desire to live never revived in him. Not for a moment was he tempted to a shabby pact with existing conditions. He wanted to die, wanted it with the fixed unwavering desire which alone attains its end. And still the end eluded him! It would not always, of course—he had full faith in the dark star of his destiny. And he could prove it best by repeating his story, persistently and indefatigably, pouring it into indifferent ears, hammering it into dull brains, till at last it kindled a spark, and some one of the careless millions paused, listened, believed…
It was a mild March day, and he had been loitering on Whitecross Street, looking at faces. He was becoming an expert in physiognomies, his eagerness no longer made rash darts and awkward recoils. He knew now the face he needed, as clearly as if it had come to him in a vision, and not till he found it would he speak. As he walked northward through the food market he had a premonition that he should find it that lunchtime. Perhaps it was the promise of spring in the air—certainly he felt calmer than for many days…
He turned into Old Street, struck across it obliquely, and walked up Ironmonger Row. Its heterogeneous passers always allured him—they were less hurried than those in Moorgate, less enclosed and classified than yet others in Brick Lane. He walked slowly, watching for his face.
Hitting City Road he felt a sudden relapse into discouragement, like a cadre who has waited too long for a sign of favour from the party. Perhaps, after all, he would never find his face… The air was languid and he felt tired. He walked south-eastwards and in Bunhill Burial Grounds made for an empty seat. Presently he passed a bench on which a girl sat alone, and something as definite as the twitch of a cord made him stop before her. He had never dreamed of telling his story to a girl, had hardly looked at womens’ faces as they passed. His case was man’s work, how could a woman help him? But this girl’s face was extraordinary—quiet and wide as a clear evening sky. It suggested a hundred images of space, distance, mystery, like ships he had seen, as a boy, quietly berthed by a familiar wharf, but with the breath of far seas and strange harbours in their shrouds… Certainly this girl would understand. He went up to her quietly, lifting his hat, observing the forms—wishing her to see at once that he was “a gentleman.”
“I am a stranger to you,” he began sitting down beside her, “but your face is so extremely intelligent that I feel… I feel it is the face I’ve waited for … looked for everywhere; and I want to tell you—”
The girl’s eyes widened: she rose to her feet. She was escaping him!
In his dismay he ran a few steps after her and caught her roughly by the arm.
“Here—wait—listen! Oh, don’t scream, you fool!” he shouted out.
He felt a hand on his own arm; turned and confronted a policeman. Instantly he understood that he was being arrested, and something hard within him was loosened and ran to tears.
“Ah, you know—you know I’m guilty!”
He was conscious that a crowd was forming, and that the girl’s frightened face had disappeared. But what did he care about her face? It was the policeman who had really understood him. He turned and followed, the crowd at his heels…
The Denizen – From Luxury Apartment Block To Madhouse 5