"How did it feel the first time you killed someone?" asked the man in the cell across the corridor. Clearly he was skeptical about Jeremy's answer to his first question, "What did you do?" Jeremy was nineteen and beardless and at the moment at least seemed very gentle, having just awakened from fourteen hours of sleep, so when he received the first question and thought about it laboriously for a minute or two and produced the answer "I killed some people," it was difficult to believe him. He looked so young and sleepy that if the jailer had had a pretty daughter she would undoubtedly have released him on the spot.
Now Jeremy was thinking even more laboriously about the second question. He knew how he felt at the moment: he felt stupid and overly sensitive from too much sleep, so that the other feelings, which were hunger and backache, seemed particularly acute. He was leaning against the bars of his cell, so the metal pressing into his face and his arms and his side created another feeling. But the first time he killed someone -- those feelings, if he'd had any, were not available to him.
"I don't remember," he said.
"How's that?" said the man in the cell across the corridor.
Jeremy rubbed the side of his face against the bar closest to it. "It was a long time ago," he said.
"You don't forget," said the man. Jeremy wondered what made him so sure of this. He was himself fairly certain that he forgot most of the things that happened to him, and why should killing people be any different? Like objects sinking into deep water, events were visible for a while and then disappeared.
But the man was still talking. "You take my advice, and the next time someone asks you that, say you liked it. That's what they'll want to hear you say, they'll believe that."
"I suppose I did," said Jeremy. He must have, because he had continued doing it, had done it, he supposed, dozens of times by now; he had killed someone, in fact, just two days earlier, and this one he remembered. She had been a little girl, children were easier because of their size, but this one had kicked him in the face and given him a black eye that proved handy when, a few hours later, he was arrested for stealing eggs from a henhouse. Now, whenever he felt his personality receding, sucked out of him by the colorlessness of his surroundings, he could bring it back by poking himself in the eye. He did this now, and yelped.
"Crazy bastard," said the man in the opposite cell. The jailer walked by: "This one," the man asked him, "what did he do?"
"He stole some eggs," said the jailer. "We'd've hanged him, but we're already hanging you, aren't we."
"What for?" the man asked him eagerly, gripping the bars. "What are you hanging me for?"
"Ladbroke killed some women," the jailer said to Jeremy.
This conversation was marginally more interesting than silence, so Jeremy asked, "How many?"
"Seven," said Ladbroke.
"That's right," said the jailer. "Married them, then smothered them. Worked all right for a while!"
Jeremy rubbed his face against the bar and thought. The little girl was one; the man before her two; before that more children, and children often came in groups -- three, four, five; beyond that the specifics started to escape him, but he retained the sense of the others, recalled a moment here and there, a shriek, a punch, the feeling he got when the knife struck home. There, that was a feeling. But he asked, "What's smothering?"
The other men laughed at him. "It's when you put something soft over a person's face, so they can't breathe," the jailer explained.
"Oh!" said Jeremy. This did not sound like much fun to him. "I've never done that."
"I should think not," said the jailer, and Ladbroke said, "He doesn't look as if he's ever gotten the chance," and they laughed again. The jailer passed on.
Ladbroke, who seemed very interested in Jeremy now, reached through the bars of his cell as if he wanted to grab the bars of Jeremy's, or perhaps poke him in the eye now that that action had been suggested to him. "Tell me the truth, were you never in bed with a woman?"
Jeremy considered. "Not that I remember," he said.
"If you ever are, you can just take a fistful of the blankets and shove them down on her face, it only takes a minute or two."
"Really." Jeremy decided he would try to remember that, in case he ever did find himself in bed with a woman. "Is that fun?" he asked.
"Why don't you tell me how it's done?" snarled Ladbroke, withdrawing his arms into his own cell.
"Well the last one, I broke her neck, but first she kicked me in the face," said Jeremy. Gently this time, he touched the bruise under his eye.
"And here I thought your mother popped you for not doing your chores," said Ladbroke.
"Oh no, no," said Jeremy, who remembered things that had happened long ago better than things that had happened recently, though not as well as things that had happened in the past month. "My mother never hit me."
"Never? Well, in that case, I'll warrant you could have used it," said Ladbroke pleasantly. He seemed happy with Jeremy again. "You wind up a vagrant, stealing eggs. Or pardon me, a murderer."
"I stole the eggs too," said Jeremy.
"But you can't remember it? I call that funny."
"I told you the last one. The one before that was a man. He almost get away, too, but I grab him by the throat and we both fall down, and I'm on top of him and I smash his skull with a rock."
Only once he had finished this sentence did Jeremy realize that he was miming the actions as he narrated them, so that he was -- instantaneously, as it seemed to him -- kneeling on the uneven stone floor, his hand raised above his head clutching an imaginary rock. He closed his fingers slowly, just to make sure there really wasn't anything between them. Ladbroke was laughing.
"That's a good one, boy," he said. "And a girl gave you that shiner, you said?"
Jeremy sat down and crossed his legs. "I climbed a tree after her and she kicked me in the face," he said.
"Well now," said Ladbroke. "Let me tell you about mine."
"All right," said Jeremy.
"And you can ask the man if you don't believe me. It's all written down, I told them everything. Why not, after all? It was tell them before the lash or tell them after, and they lashed me anyway, just to make sure. Makes no difference.
"The first one I was your age, I got her with child so I had to marry her. I suppose I might just have run off, but -- this'll sound funny to you, I didn't hate her so much as I hated the thought of her being in the world. I wanted to start new; so I pushed her into the well."
"I thought you smothered them."
"What about the baby?"
"Oh," said Jeremy. "That's tidy."
"Just so," said Ladbroke. "Tidy. For me anyhow. Though I imagine they still won't drink out of that well." He laughed, and even Jeremy smiled, having considered for a moment. "Most people never kill anyone," said Ladbroke. "It would bother them; but it didn't bother me, that's what I learned."
"Why, do you suppose? I mean everyone else, why does it bother them?" asked Jeremy.
"You're dumber than a box of rocks, ent you boy," said Ladbroke. "If everyone killed everyone there wouldn't be anyone left, and then where would you be? No mother to tie your shoes for you."
"Then why doesn't it bother me?" asked Jeremy. "Or you?"
"It's all right if there's a few of us," said Ladbroke. "You can't steal all the eggs in the world, and I can't smother all the women."
"I did kill some people," said Jeremy. For a moment, he wasn't entirely certain that this was true. He poked himself in the eye again.
"Now the second one, she was nice, I thought she might do for me."
"Nice?" said Jeremy. Ladbroke did not seem like the kind of person to whom niceness would be appealing.
"You know, nice, good cook, didn't bother me too much about going to bed -- most men could stay married to a woman like that; I imagine you'll find yourself one, or maybe you need the kind who'll keep after you. You know -- feed the chickens! Sweep the yard!"
"I never thought about it," said Jeremy. Now that he did, it seemed unlikely to him that a woman would ever want to become his wife. Most people did not react favorably to him.
"I can tell you haven't," said Ladbroke. "This one I smothered. Ask the man," for the jailer had come by again.
"Did he?" asked Jeremy.
"Did he what?"
"Smother his second wife."
"That's what he told us," the jailer said.
"Twice," said Ladbroke. "Once before you beat me and once after."
The jailer laughed and looked at Jeremy, who clung rapt to the bars of his cell. "What are you about, Ladbroke? You want one more wife before you swing?"
Ladbroke muttered something and the jailer laughed again.
"For that," he said, "Mrs. Ladbroke here can have your supper."
"Which one?" asked Jeremy, and Ladbroke cried, "You'd take food from the mouth of a condemned man?"
"Not ordinarily," said the jailer, "but you're something special, Laddy."