Outside, the wolves, if there were any, must have been jubilant; they reigned supreme over a doomed world. Razziel pictured a pack of them in full cry, anticipating the delight of falling upon sleeping prey, and that reminded him dimly of the troubling landscape of his youth. Were these the only things that seemed familiar to him, his only points of reference? Was there no face he could have called to mind for reassurance? Yes, there was one: that of an old wise man, wise and mad, mad with love and daring, with thirst for life and knowledge, the ravaged face of Paritus. Whenever Razziel thought about his own past, Paritus always surfaced in his memory.
The storm was violent, driven by the fury, both blind and blinding, of a thousand wounded monsters; when would its howling cease? It seemed as if it were pitilessly bent on uprooting everything, sweeping everything away to a land dominated by white death, and that this would engulf the log cabin in which he sat in this little village hidden away somewhere in the mountains between New York and Boston. Was it the end of the world? The end of a tale whose origins were unknown to Razziel? Was he to die before having met once more with his great protector, his guide, the messenger of his destiny? Surely not; it was just a fantasy, an illusion that arose from the nightmares buried deep in Razziel's memory, from which he himself had been barred for time beyond measure.
A strange orator roused him from his reverie. Theatrical, with a harsh, emphatic voice, he was delivering a speech as if he were onstage or standing before a gathering of learned men.
"I salute the gods who have guided you to this modest dwelling. Welcome. Warm yourselves, and may our meeting have a significance worthy of us all," said the man, smiling.
Were the five survivors, four men and one woman, too exhausted to be astonished at the solemn, not to say pompous, tone of these remarks? They did not react. Their host seemed to be relishing his role; no doubt this was one he had played in front of other travelers who had sought shelter beneath his roof on stormy nights.
They appeared content, these tourists who had become refugees; they were relieved–in good spirits, even. Their nightmare was over. In this room, which resembled a large monastic cell with bare, immaculately white walls, they had no cause to be uneasy. Quite the reverse; they felt lucky: Had they not just escaped catastrophe? After those interminable minutes of apprehension before the plane's forced landing, the universe had rediscovered its contours, its anchor. Their fear was dissipated. The elements would surely calm down. With solid ground beneath their feet, they enjoyed a sense of security here in this light, warm room with a host who gave evidence of the kindness of the human heart. He was smiling at them, a good sign. They had been fortunate to come across him. From now on all would be well. The other passengers would surely envy them when they exchanged stories, once back on the plane. For the moment they congratulated themselves on the outcome of an adventure that could have ended so badly.
"Damn it," murmured one of the travelers, a squat, morose man; he was rummaging in his pockets, searching for lost documents. No doubt he had left them on the plane.
Razziel understood his anxiety: They all lived in a world where a human being counts for less than a piece of paper. He almost proffered him a friendly word of reassurance–Don't worry; you know, in situations like this the authorities are understanding–but decided not to. He uttered a silent prayer, thanking the Lord for having taken care of him. The third man, tall, well-dressed, with a fedora, a mustache, and a red scarf around his neck, much in the style of a movie star, smiled at the woman, who was swathed in a fur coat. The danger was barely past and he was already beginning to flirt. The woman, who was put out at having left her gloves behind, blew on her fingers. Razziel glanced at the youngest of the group, who seemed indifferent to what was happening to them. This young man had something on his mind, something that was of no concern to his fellow travelers. If he was in a hurry to continue his journey, he did not show it. His eyes were focused on their host: There was something forced and false about him. His smile was disconcerting rather than reassuring. There was a fixity about his stare, a rigidity about his movements, like an actor; he seemed to be cooking up some secret plan, although his guests were not yet aware of it.
"First let us thank you for your hospitality," said the woman, an ebullient young redhead, offering him her hand, which he appeared not to see. "Truly–"
"It is I who must thank you," replied her benefactor, assisting her, with exaggerated courtesy, to remove her elegant fur coat. "If you only knew how dismal and monotonous existence can be here, especially in winter. The local people get depressed. All they can think about is the weather. And all the world does here is grow old. Sometimes we feel forgotten, both by History and by men. By the gods too. Thanks to you, things will happen. What would life be without its little surprises? I am obliged to you for the Creator's gift to man: his capacity to surprise."
Then he introduced himself.
"I am the owner of this modest house. My name would mean nothing to you; besides, it's of little significance. What's in a name? I could give you a dozen. But instead let me tell you my profession. I am a judge. And, indeed, tonight I will be your
What a showman, Razziel said to himself, still unaware that the nightmare was beginning. How subtle this fellow is. And crafty. In putting on this performance for us, he's trying to make us forget the danger we have just escaped and help to pass the time while we wait. Only later did he realize that the real source of danger was this character himself. At this moment he seemed overly amiable and welcoming, eager to win the confidence and gratitude of his guests, which they were fully disposed to accord him.
"Please be so kind as to listen to me carefully. This little house is not exactly paradise; it does not allow me to offer you bedrooms. These are already occupied by my staff. You will be meeting my chief assistant shortly. His correct name is–oh, forget it. As he's not very tall, he prefers to be called the 'Little One,' or, as he's not very handsome, you could call him the 'Hunchback' because he's–"
"Fine. We get the picture," the young woman interrupted, laughing. "If you're not careful he might sue you for assault on his dignity."
The Judge glanced at her reprovingly. "Interrupting a judge can be a serious offense."
"Or an enjoyable sin," intervened the elegant man.
"Oh, well, sins. I know a thing or two about them,"
said the young woman.
The Judge ignored these remarks. "This room is heated by two electric radiators, which my assistant can regulate from outside. If you are too hot or too cold, let us know. The bathroom is behind me–the narrow door there, you see? Does anyone need . . . ?"
No volunteers. In fact, Razziel would have liked to make a visit, but it was not urgent.
"When we have completed our preliminaries, an interesting task awaits us," resumed the Judge, rubbing his hands as if to warm them. "You will see. I have everything ready: pens, notebooks . . . and even some good strong tea–or is there anyone among you who would prefer coffee? I have that too. I have all you need. While you are in my house you will have nothing to complain of." A silence. "Afterward–well, afterward is another story."
The room was pleasant, furnished with simplicity: chairs around a circular table, a sofa, dictionaries in a corner on the floor. The dandy was the first of the men to remove his overcoat, which earned him mildly ironic congratulations from the Judge: "Well done, sir. I can see you make yourself at home wherever you go."
The Judge, in his turn, removed his heavy fur-lined cape, that of a shepherd or mountain dweller. Razziel was expecting to see the man casually dressed. But he was dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt, navy-blue tie. Very smart. As if he had just come from a dinner in town. In an indefinable way he compelled respect. Everything he said and did was calculated. If Razziel, disconcerted by the fixity of his stare, had had to guess his profession or vocation, he would have opted for undertaker in a superior funeral parlor, Protestant minister, or professor of canon law.
"So. Please be seated. Look, take this chair, it's quite comfortable. They all are. And you, madam, that one over there. You other gentlemen, take any chair. You must be exhausted. I shall remain standing."
He waited for everyone to be seated before continuing.
"Everything all right?"
Yes, everything was all right.
"If anyone wishes to change places I have no objection."
No, no one wanted to do so.
"Good. In that case, let us begin. You know who I am–that is to say, I have disclosed my profession to you. Now it is your turn. After all, we are going to spend this long night together, and perhaps others too. It's only natural, don't you agree, for all of us to introduce ourselves?"
Yes, they agreed. Oddly enough, the Judge was right. The five survivors did not know one another. Thrown together by chance, first in the same airplane, now in this place, why should they not explain their reasons for traveling? Five lives, five stories had come together in a strange convergence. After all, any one of the Judge's "guests" could have been elsewhere; any one of them could have changed schedules or arrived too late for boarding.
"To begin with," the Judge continued, starting to pace around the table, "let us limit ourselves to basic biographi- cal details: surname and forename, profession, place of birth, marital status, purpose of travel. Imagine you're checking in at a hotel. Making a passport or visa application. So? Who will speak first?"
The five visitors stared at him, bewildered: Was he serious? He guessed what they were thinking and added, "Let us say that this is a game, a parlor game that . . . that later, if heaven wills it, might become seriously interesting."
His "guests" were beginning to show irritation: What had they walked into? Who did he think he was, this apprentice demagogue, so abusing the situation as to make them talk about their private lives? Who authorized him to give orders? The young woman was the first to pull herself together.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Judges by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2002 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.