- Bartleby’s Last Speech
They found Bartleby laying huddled in the yard,his forehead flush against the wall,like he’d been trying to think throughto the other sideand then way past that.Sad, but no surprise.I saw what he was after when they brung him in,and it wasn’t to be here, or anywherethat has dirt below and sky above.
Never had a cellmate so still and gray;gave me most all his gruband didn’t care a stale crumbwhether I glommed it down or not,just went on staringat dead walls with near-dead eyes.
Last night, though, while he’s watching the wall,I says to the back of his head,“Seems like eating don’t agree with you.”He nods, but don’t turn around none.“And maybe,” I says, “what don’t agree even worseis being near folks that’s feeding?”(He’d cringed hearing me tear into hard crusts.)He faces me at that, his eyes lighting some,but no brighter than a weak torch in a damp tomb,his lips curled a little bit,like the undertaker fixes ’em on a corpse,and he says softly, “You saw that, eh?”“Yeah,” I says, “you ain’t got much appetitefor appetite, looks like.”“No, not much,” he tells me,“and you’re the first to see it.Most prefer not to—might trouble them as to causes.” [End Page 81] With him dolloping out that much talk,I figured his larder had gone just about bare,but he had a healthy stock hoarded up.
Sitting himself down slow on the floor,his back against the wall,his face in the shadows,he went on, his voice dull and flat,“I’ve seen things, you know,that gnaw at me still.I’ve watched sharks churn the waters red,ripping open the torn whaleand each other,entrails hanging from their teeth.Then, but hours later, I’ve watched men,their jaws glistening with the thick grease of their meal,greedily downing shark steaks done rare.Think you, though, that such is merely the way of the sea?Think again, for every living thing is at last diner or meal.The stooped and scarred slaves of the field,the haggard loom-girls of the factory,the bent clerks peering red-eyedat ledgers from their high stoolsare swallowed as surely as the thin oat porridge they spoonor the roast beef that yields to their masters’ fork and blade.
“I took my final lesson in the way of the worldon Wall Street, that center of things as they are.Within the walls of an attorney’s chambers,all gorged on what they could—such the law.Apples, cakes, and ale fedTurkey, Nippers, and Ginger-Nut,who, in turn, fed our employer,the three of them morselsfor the gaping maw of commerce.Each hungered for higher station, only he achieved it.As it is on that walled-in street,so it is in this walled-in world.
“I preferred at last neither to feed nor to be fed upon—thus to them a mystery,a dead letter of illegible address.Perhaps I might be deliverable elsewhere,where all might be read clearly and lovingly—of this, though, I have my doubts.” [End Page 82] I nodded and told Bartleby with a smilethat in the brawl that brought me here again,I bit deep into the nape of some copper’s neck.
Bartleby smiled back, his teeth showing dim from the shadows,and we preferred to speak no more. [End Page 83]