Frigyes Karinthy

Conversation with a Decent Man

“And now, Article Three of the Supreme Sentence of the Holy Office: You are consigned to the Chief Executioner. Executioner, do your duty!”

The Master raised his hands—the loose-fitting sleeves of his black soutane fell back, and for a moment the white of his eyes flashed from his pointed, black mask. After that, he drew back almost noiselessly and vanished beneath the vaults of the cellar. The door slammed, we were left alone.

The Chief Executioner—a muscular man, with a long face, and a pensive look in his eyes, took off his doublet. His fine, brown skin and enormous fists offered a refreshing sight after all the rustling black hoods and robes which left nothing uncovered except the eyes. He was a little piece of reality at last, amongst those man-shaped embodiments of Dogmas and Laws and Judgments. I sat down on the stone floor of the cellar, and watched him make his preparations.

He tested the pulleys and ropes to check that they were strong enough. He then put together the wooden parts of that ingenious mechanism, the rack. He twirled the mangles underneath the moving, spiked board, stirred the glowing charcoal in the pan, and set the flier of the wheel swinging. He adjusted the last-mentioned instrument so as to reduce its creak. An ear for music, I thought.

These preparations took a fair time, and the drab walls of the dungeon weighed my eyelashes into torpor: I was afraid that I might fall asleep. It was a long time since I had last spoken to anyone. That may have been why, when his glance chanced to fall on me, I smiled at him faintly. I even made a friendly gesture, as if to ask whether he wanted me to come over. However, his glance passed over me absent-mindedly—he was engrossed in his work, preparing and arranging the assorted screws and spikes.

Later on, when, summoned by him, I stretched myself out on the spiked board, and he was strapping down my ankles and wrists, I nevertheless attempted to make him talk to me. The thought that we were going to go through a process which might take from two to three hours in mute silence, without speaking a word to each other, seemed more than I could bear. Why, there would be only the two of us—a terrible twosome—occupied with each other. No, no, I couldn’t expect myself to bear two or three hours, locked up with another living creature, without getting to know him, without speaking to him! No, that was a thing beyond my strength.

I studied his face. Screwing up his eyes attentively, he was trying to peep under my waist to make sure that the spikes had penetrated my body; then he began, with much caution, to turn the mangles. I cleared my throat.

“Works quite well, doesn’t it?” I said politely, by way of an opening.

He nodded.

“As long as you’re careful,” he said, “so you don’t let the blood trickle on to the pillow-block. If you let it get drenched, the whole works will jam.”

His voice, though rasping, was not unattractive. A Tuscan dialect, I thought instantly.

“You have to be careful,” I said.

“Aye, that’s why I keep mopping it up with this bit of rag.”

We relapsed into silence. He was busying himself about me briskly—he took off the straps, and putting a stool under me, propped up my waist, and fastened my neck. He then lifted two box-like complicated-looking things that were joined by wooden screws and iron bands.

“The thumb-screws?” I inquired, pretending to be curious.


Deftly, he mounted the instrument on my thumbs, which were placed against each other. After four turns of the screw, he looked me over with an expert eye, and nodded, seeing that the nail-beds had opened. I had a painful feeling that he was more interested in the instrument than in what I was saying. Or could it be that he was sick and tired of his trade and was just thinking about the world outside?

“Must be a fine day today,” I remarked, rather dully.

“Aye. They’re picking the grapes in my village by now, at this time of year.”

“You have a family?”

“Two children.”

I stared vacantly into space. . .

“I once had a family myself”—I said at last.

He took off the wooden frame, lowered the pulley, and quietly trundled up the rack. He now began to speak of his own accord.

“I could have stayed on in my village easily, sir. Vinde-dresser, that’s what I used to be. . . But then, what with life in town, and people talking my head off that an office, why, that was the thing, and so on and so forth—I left. They took a fancy to me, they did, in the army. Then there’s my faith, of course. . . His Worship the Grand Master was pleased with me for being devout.—Will you please stretch this leg a bit more. The knee. That’s right. After all, we all belong to the Holy Mother Church, don’t we. . .”

“Of course.”

“I can run to a drop of wine now and then. And it’s a respectable job, too. The tax collectors don’t get at me either. No, sir. Not me. Next year, with Saint Anthony’s help, I may get my son fixed up with a job here.”

He seemed somewhat moved as he was turning the iron poker over the live coals. I wanted to ask him something, but he motioned as if to say that he now had to put in a gag. That done, he carefully tested the sputtering red-hot iron bar on my back.

“Gives off a nasty smell, the burning,” he laughed at me from the corner of his eye. “There's many that can’t stand it.”

I rolled my eyes towards him inquiringly.

“Yes, many. Take Blaise, my pal. A good operator, was Blaise. A hefty, big bull of a man. Used to turn the great wheel like anything. He could unhinge a prisoner’s arm at the shoulder, and with him turning the wheel with one hand. . . But the first time he came to burning flesh . . .he was through. Upset. He dropped the poker. So eventually he got transferred to the troop. A matter of your disposition, if you ask me.”

I nodded.

“And yet he was a decent chap, Blaise. I got on well with him for a half-year or so. But the point is. . . Well, he just didn’t have what it takes . . .”

He took out the gag, rattled the pulley, and lowered the ropes. The iron ball dropped to the ground with a heavy thud as he fastened it on my ankles. He wound the ropes round my wrists and threw them over the beam. Slowly he began to pull at them. My arms turned outwards; I was raised to tiptoe, then lifted off the ground. It was like flying.

“He was a decent man—”

“You liked him?”

“Why, yes. I got on well with him.”

“Because you are a decent man too, I’m sure.”

“You think so? Maybe you’re right. Why, I’ve never said a hard word to anyone. No, I never spoke badly of anyone’s father and mother. I’ve blamed no one for anything—”

“That’s all as it should be, my friend. Well, I’m afraid I have to say good-bye to you now. I am going to faint, after all—”

“I daresay—They all do, at this point. Good-bye, sir. Remember me in your prayers.”

That’s all I can remember.

SOURCE: Karinthy, Frigyes. “Conversation with a Decent Man” (Beszélgetés egy jó emberrel), translated by István Farkas, in Grave and Gay: Selections from His Work, selected by István Kerékgyárto, afterword by Károly Szalay, binding and jacket by István Bányai, 2nd ed., (Budapest: Corvina Press, 1973), pp. 229-232.

Note: “Conversation with a Decent Man” is the same story as “Conversation with a Good Man” in Soliloquies in the Bath, translated by Lawrence Wolfe.

"Frigyes Karinthy, Humorist and Thinker"
by Miklós Vajda

Frigyes & Ferenc Karinthy in English

Frigyes (Frederiko) Karinthy (1887-1938) en Esperanto

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
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Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

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