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Jorge Luis Borges


The Man on the Threshold

by Jorge Luis Borges


Bioy Casares brought back with him from London to Buenos Aires a strange dagger with a triangular blade and a hilt in the shape of an H; a friend of ours, Christopher Dewey of the British Council, told us that such weapons were commonly used in India. This statement prompted him to mention that he had held a job in that country between the two wars. ("Ultra Auroram et Gangen," I recall his saying in Latin, misquoting a line from Juvenal.) Of the stories he entertained us with that night, I venture to set down the one that follows. My account will be faithful; may Allah deliver me from the temptation of adding any circumstantial details or of weighing down with interpolations from Kipling the tale's Oriental character. It should be remarked that the story has a certain ancient simplicity that it would be a pity to lose—something perhaps straight out of the Arabian Nights.

The precise geography (Dewey said) of the events I am going to relate is of little importance. Besides, what would the names of Amritsar or Oudh mean in Buenos Aires? Let me only say, then, that in those years there were disturbances in a Muslim city and that the central government set out one of their best people to restore order. He was a Scotsman from an illustrious clan of warriors, and in his blood he bore a tradition of violence. Only once did I lay eyes on him, but I shall not forget his deep black hair, the prominent cheekbones, the somehow avid nose and mouth, the broad shoulders, the powerful set of a Viking. David Alexander Glencairn is what he'll be called in my story tonight; the names are fitting, since they belonged to kings who ruled with an iron scepter. David Alexander Glencairn (as I shall have to get used to calling him) was, I suspect, a man who was feared; the mere news of his coming was enough to quell the city. This did not deter him from putting into effect a number of forceful measures. A few years passed. The city and the outlying district were at peace; Sikhs and Muslims had laid aside their ancient enmities, and suddenly Glencairn disappeared. Naturally enough, there was no lack of rumors that he had been kidnapped or murdered.

These things I learned from my superior, for the censorship was strict and the newspapers made no comment on (nor did they even record, for all I recall) Glencairn's disappearance. There's a saying that India is larger than the world; Glencairn, who may have been all-powerful in the city to which he was destined by a signature scrawled across the bottom of some document, was no more than a cog in the administration of Empire. The inquiries of the local police turned up nothing; my superior felt that a civilian might rouse less suspicion and achieve greater results. Three or four days later (distances in India are generous), I was appointed to my mission and was working my way without hope of success through the streets of the commonplace city that had somehow whisked away a man.

I felt, almost at once, the invisible presence of a conspiracy to keep Glencairn's fate hidden. There's not a soul in this city (I suspected) who is not in on the secret and who is not sworn to keep it. Most people upon questioning professed an unbounded ignorance; they did not know who Glencairn was, had never seen him, had never heard anyone speak of him. Others, instead, had caught a glimpse of him only a quarter of an hour before talking to So-and-So, and they even accompanied me to the house the two had entered and in which nothing was known of them, or which they had just that moment left. Some of those meticulous liars I went so far as to knock down. Witnesses approved my outbursts, and made up other lies. I did not believe them, but neither did I dare ignore them. One afternoon, I was handed an envelope containing a slip of paper on which there was an address.

The sun had gone down when I got there. The quarter was poor but not rowdy; the house was quite low; from the street I caught a glimpse of a succession of unpaved inner courtyards, and somewhere at the far end an opening. There, some kind of Muslim ceremony was being held; a blind man entered with a lute made of a reddish wood.

At my feet, motionless as an object, an old, old man squatted on the threshold. I'll tell what he was like, for he is an essential part of the story. His many years had worn him down and polished him as smooth as water polishes a stone, or as the generations of men polish a sentence. Long rags covered him, or so it seemed to me, and the cloth he wore wound around his head was one rag more. In the dusk, he lifted a dark face and a white beard. I began speaking to him without preamble, for by now I had given up all hope of ever finding David Alexander Glencairn. The old man did not understand me (perhaps he did not hear me), and I had to explain that Glencairn was a judge and that I was looking for him. I felt, on speaking these words, the pointlessness of questioning this old man for whom the present was hardly more than a dim rumor. This man might give me news of the Mutiny or of Akbar (I thought) but not of Glencairn. What he told me confirmed this suspicion.

"A judge!" he cried with weak surprise. "A judge who has got himself lost and is being searched for. That happened when I was a boy. I have no memory for dates, but Nikal Seyn (Nicholson) had not yet been killed before the wall of Delhi. Time that has passed stays on in memory; I may be able to summon back what happened then. God, in his wrath, had allowed people to fall into corruption; the mouths of men were full of blasphemy and of deceit and of fraud. Yet not all were evil, and when it was known that the queen was about to send a man who would carry out in this land the law of England, those who were less evil were cheered, for they felt that law is better than disorder. The Christian came to us but it was not long before he too began deceiving and oppressing us, in concealing abominable crimes, and in selling decisions. We did not blame him in the beginning; the English justice he administered was not familiar to anyone, and the apparent excesses of the new judge may have obeyed certain valid arcane reasoning. Everything must have a justification in his book, we wished to think, but his kinship with all evil judges the world over was too obvious to be overlooked, and at last we were forced to admit that he was simply a wicked man. He turned out to be a tyrant, the unfortunate people (in order to avenge themselves for the false hopes they had once placed in him) began to toy with the idea of kidnapping him and submitting him to judgment. To talk was not enough; from plans they had to move to action. Nobody, perhaps, save the very foolish or the very young, believed that that rash scheme could be carried out, but thousands of Sikhs and Muslims kept their word and one day they executed—incredulous—what to each of them had seemed impossible. They sequestered the judge and held him prisoner in a farmhouse beyond the outskirts of the town. Then they called together all those who had been wronged by him, or, in some cases, orphans and widows, for during those years the executioner's sword had not rested. In the end—this was perhaps the most difficult—they sought and named a judge to judge the judge."

At this point, the old man was interrupted by some women who were entering the house. Then he went on, slowly.

"It is well known that there is no generation that does not include in it four upright men who are the secret pillars of the world and who justify it before the Lord: one of these men would have made the perfect judge. But where are they to be found if they themselves wander the world lost and nameless, and do not know each other when they meet, and are unaware of the high destiny that is theirs? Someone then reasoned that if fate forbade us wise men we should seek out the witless. This opinion prevailed. Students of the Koran, doctors of law, Sikhs who bear the name of lions and who worship one God, Hindus who worship a multitude of gods, Mahavira monks who teach that the shape of the universe is that of a man with his legs spread apart, worshippers of fire, and black Jews made up the court, but the final ruling was entrusted to a madman."

Here he was interrupted by people who were leaving the ceremony.

"To a madman," he repeated, "so that God's wisdom might speak through his mouth and shame human pride. His name has been forgotten, or was never known, but he went naked through the streets, or was clothed in rags, counting his fingers with a thumb and mocking at the trees."

My common sense rebelled. I said that to hand over the verdict to a madman was to nullify the trial.

"The defendant accepted the judge," was his answer, "seeing, perhaps, that because of the risk the conspirators would run if they set him free, only from a man who was mad might he not expect a sentence of death. I heard that he laughed when he was told who the judge was. The trial lasted many days and nights, drawn out by the swelling of the number of witnesses."

The old man stopped. Something was troubling him. In order to bridge the lapse, I asked him how many days.

"At least nineteen," he replied.

People who were leaving the ceremony interrupted him again; wine is forbidden to Muslims, but the faces and voices were those of drunkards. One, on passing, shouted something to the old man.

"Nineteen days—exactly," he said, setting matters straight. "The faithless dog heard sentence passed, and the knife feasted on his throat."

He had spoken fiercely, joyfully. With a different voice now he brought the story to an end. "He died without fear; in the most vile of men there is some virtue."

"Where did all this happen?" I asked him. "In a farmhouse?"

For the first time, he looked into my eyes. Then he made things clear, slowly, measuring his words. "I said that he had been confined in a farmhouse, not that he was tried there. He was tried in this city, in a house like any other, like this one. One house differs little from another; what is important to know is whether the house is built in Hell or in Heaven."

I asked him about the fate of the conspirators.

"I don't know," he told me patiently. "These things took place and were forgotten many years ago now. Maybe what they did was condemned by men, but not by the Lord."

Having said this, he got up. I felt his words as a dismissal, and from that moment I no longer existed for him. Men and women from all the corners of the Punjab swarmed over us, praying and intoning, and nearly swept us away. I wondered how, from courtyards so narrow they were little more than long passageways, so many persons could be pouring out. Others were coming from the neighboring houses; it seems they had leaped over the walls. By shoving and cursing, I forced my way inside. At the heart of the innermost courtyard, I came upon a naked man, crowned with yellow flowers, whom everyone kissed and caressed, with a sword in his hand. The sword was stained, for it had dealt Glencairn his death. I found his mutilated body in the stables out back.



Last updated:
February 23, 2004
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