by Octave Mirbeau

Translated by Ann Sterzinger.  The story first appeared in the Paris newspaper Gil Blas on August 2nd, 1887.  Le petit gardeur de vaches was the original title. Gardeur, a variant of gardien, is used for social inferiors, and carried the idea that the guardian was no more intelligent than the animals he or she looked after.


“Gentlemen of the jury:

“In the long months of my painful detention in C… Prison, I’ve become convinced that the prosecutors, the state attorneys, and in general all the magistrates who hold the power of life and death over men, hold frightening and very false ideas about human actions. Their knowledge of crime doesn’t go beyond certain classic theories and arbitrary conceptions, which they slap onto every crime they investigate and punish with an odious and mechanical stubbornness. In the case of crimes that I would call philosophical, they haven’t got a grasp on anything, neither the particular sensibility of each individual, nor of moral reasoning –which is natural, eternal, superior to laws by its very immutability –to the Law, if you prefer, capricious and vain, which changes with time, with governments, the parliamentary majority, with the devil knows what! Magistrates are limited, ignorant, bound by routine, essentially romantic, and ferocious by indifference if they aren’t that way by temperament. They’re simply magistrates.

“Anyway, I can’t believe that a man would dare say to himself, at any moment in his life, ‘I’ll be the judge!’ –that would be appalling. Either such a man must be aware of the horrible responsibility he’s assuming, and in that case, he’s a monster; or else he isn’t aware, in which case he’s an imbecile. Imbeciles and monsters, that’s who judges us, ever since tribunals have existed! And just see if I am wrong.

“I killed a little cowherd, under the clear, evident, and compelling circumstances which I am about to recount to you. Because, rejecting the power of the judges, and disdaining the patronizing protection of judges, once again I must present you with the facts that have brought me before your justice. I killed this little cowherd because it was just and because it was necessary. But the prosecutor in charge of my case was absolutely convinced that I had killed the little cowherd in order to rob him. By what chain of bizarre reasoning, by what cockeyed deductions did such an idea get into that prosecutor’s skull? I have no idea. In vain I tried to explain the absurdity of such a supposition; in vain I told him that I was rich, with sixty thousand francs in rents coming in, while the little cowherd didn’t really possess anything besides the poor rags he was wearing when I killed him. He insisted, adamantly, and this went on for two months. He’d make me come to his office, between two policemen, or he’d come and visit me himself in my cell. And every time, he’d say to me, puckering his lips:

‘Do you admit that you killed him to rob him?’

“I would respond, exasperated, ‘Rob him of what? I mean, what? What? What?’

“Then he would look at me, almost imploringly, ‘Confess! You could get your head cut off. Why won’t you confess? The court will give you credit for being honest –so, confess!’

“I replied, ‘This is crazy, crazy, crazy! How would I have robbed him, and what could I have stolen, I ask you?’

“Finally, harassed and irritated, and wanting to put an end to these visitations –which I found really disgusting –one morning I said to the prosecutor, ‘All right! I confess. It was to rob him, do you hear? –to steal from him. I thought, I believed that the little cowherd had some jewelry on him, a gold watch, a wallet bursting with cash, railroad bonds, some…’

“The prosecutor interrupted me and said, politely, ‘That’s enough.’ Then he turned to the court clerk, who was digging the wax from his ears and obstinately biting his nails. ‘Write this down,’ the prosecutor commended, “‘I confess that it was in order to rob him that I murdered the little cowherd.’

“The next day the newspapers, which until then had gone on angrily about my bull-headed attitude, applauded the prosecutor breathlessly for his amazing shrewdness.

“Gentlemen of the jury, I address you as simple, honest souls, who were not brought up in the somber corridors of jails, nor in the shady little back rooms of the Palaces of Justice. I will tell you simply, naively, sincerely, how I killed the little cowherd, and then you will judge me by my acts, and according to your conscience.

“One more word.

“Certain genteel people, great defenders of authority and its symbols, imperturbable partisans of the social hierarchy, will be stunned to see a magistrate openly favor such an insignificant creature, as the little cowherd was, over a rich man such as myself, who enjoys a high station in the world, and they’ll conclude from this anomaly that I must be three times as guilty. To them I’ll only say that I am the author of a book entitled Judicial Reform, in which, in the name of ethics, in the name of philosophy, in the name of humanity, I take a stand against the monstrous power that is left uncontrolled and without justice in the indifferent hands of judges and prosecutors. They’ll close their eyes to a crime, but in this case –there, do you get it? –the guillotine!

* * *

“My tale will be short.

“The estate I live on is surrounded by a wide ditch and closed in by an iron fence. To prevent night poaching, the pillars of the fence are fortified from top to bottom with woven, curving iron spikes that stick their points out under a thick foliage of Virginia creeper, ivy, and birthwort vines. One morning, while passing through the gate, I heard a pained and prolonged miaoing, and I found, nailed by the paw to one of the iron spikes, a poor little cat, yellowish brown, with black stripes. He must have been there quite some time, as I found dried and blackened streaks of blood in the leaves tangled around him. His paw, punched through with the iron stalk, was broken in two places, and the torn-up skin left part of his leg denuded. I unnailed the cat, who I recognized as belonging to a neighboring farm. He was pitiful to see and to hear, and believe me, I was just as moved as if I were witness to human suffering. At first I thought I should kill him, but I realized he didn’t belong to me, so I went to take him to his owner.

“‘Oh, yeah,’ the owner said, ‘that’d be the little cowherd who done that, for fun. ‘e only likes torturing animals, that little squirt. ‘e doesn’t know what else to do with ‘imself.’

“‘Your cat is done for,’ I said. There’s no point in making him suffer any more. Please kill him. It’s better that way.’

“‘Yeah, yeah, okay. I’ll kill ‘er tonight.’

“And with that, I left. As I returned home, I saw the little cowherd, leaning against a tree, looking up at me snidely, and acting kind of funny. He whistled a folk tune, pretending to whittle a fresh-cut chestnut switch. He didn’t say hello.

“That day, I ran into him everywhere I went. He followed me around like an evil thought. On an embankment, his sly, cruel face looked up brusquely; it appeared between the leaves of the trees, in the woods, by the side of the road. I couldn’t go twenty steps without him rearing up before me, sarcastic, irritating, horrible. In the evening the little cowherd sang for hours, all around my house, full-throated, his voice mixing with the ospreys’ cries. Standing at the window, it seemed to me –a hallucination, of course –that I could see his eyes glowing in the shadows, from the top of a beech tree.

“A week later, I was taking a walk through the fields, following a wide dividing hedge, whose ditch was planted with cropped hornbeam trees and young chestnuts. Suddenly, through the thick tangle of the hedge, I saw the little cowherd. The noise of two fat cows, grazing the fresh grasses, had kept him from hearing my approach. I watched him, and I was truly afraid. A chill shook me from head to toe. Crouched in the leaves, among the brambles, he was torturing, for his own amusement, the poor cat I’d freed from the fence and who I thought was dead. He was shoving thorns through its eyes, ripping open the wounds on its leg by scraping it on a rock; then he took its throat between his fingers and shook the cat in the air, howling with a ferocious joy. He took a monstrous joy in torturing this pitiful animal; you could read it in his eyes, where a sinister luster formed –the terrifying gaze of a murderer. Oh, those eyes! How can I ever forget them? Those indescribable eyes, with the form and color of a dagger-stroke. I was seized by a rage; with one leap I was next to him, in the hedge.

“‘What are you doing, you little wretch?’ I yelled. He didn’t seem very surprised, and didn’t answer.

“‘Get up,’ I commanded. He didn’t move.

“‘Will you get up?’

“Nothing. Not a word, not a sign. Nothing but those hallucinating eyes pressing into me, penetrating me, like the blade of a criminal’s knife. So I lunged at him, and my convulsed fists pounded his throat.

“‘Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!’ I screamed.

“He tried to fight back, to tear up my arms with his nails. Little by little his limbs slackened; they contracted with a few spasms, then fell limp. He still twitched a bit on the grass where I laid him out, so I finished him off by stomping on his head with my boot. That’s all.”