by Franz Kafka
One evening, a few days later, K. was walking along one of the corridors that separated his office from the main stairway – he was nearly the last one to leave for home that evening, there remained only a couple of workers in the light of a single bulb in the dispatch department – when he heard a sigh from behind a door which he had himself never opened but which he had always thought just led into a junk room. He stood in amazement and listened again to establish whether he might not be mistaken. For a while there was silence, but then came some more sighs. His first thought was to fetch one of the servitors, it might well have been worth having a witness present, but then he was taken by an uncontrollable curiosity that make him simply yank the door open. It was, as he had thought, a junk room. Old, unusable forms, empty stone ink-bottles lay scattered behind the entrance. But in the cupboard-like room itself stood three men, crouching under the low ceiling. A candle fixed on a shelf gave them light. “What are you doing here?” asked K. quietly, but crossly and without thinking. One of the men was clearly in charge, and attracted attention by being dressed in a kind of dark leather costume which left his neck and chest and his arms exposed. He did not answer. But the other two called out, “Mr. K.! We’re to be beaten because you made a complaint about us to the examining judge.” And now, K. finally realised that it was actually the two policemen, Franz and Willem, and that the third man held a cane in his hand with which to beat them. “Well,” said K., staring at them, “I didn’t make any complaint, I only said what took place in my home. And your behaviour was not entirely unobjectionable, after all.” “Mr. K.,” said Willem, while Franz clearly tried to shelter behind him as protection from the third man, “if you knew how badly we get paid you wouldn’t think so badly of us. I’ve got a family to feed, and Franz here wanted to get married, you just have to get more money where you can, you can’t do it just by working hard, not however hard you try. I was sorely tempted by your fine clothes, policemen aren’t allowed to do that sort of thing, course they aren’t, and it wasn’t right of us, but it’s tradition that the clothes go to the officers, that’s how it’s always been, believe me; and it’s understandable too, isn’t it, what can things like that mean for anyone unlucky enough to be arrested? But if he starts talking about it openly then the punishment has to follow.” “I didn’t know about any of this that you’ve been telling me, and I made no sort of request that you be punished, I was simply acting on principle.” “Franz,” said Willem, turning to the other policeman, “didn’t I tell you that the gentleman didn’t say he wanted us to be punished? Now you can hear for yourself, he didn’t even know we’d have to be punished.” “Don’t you let them persuade you, talking like that,” said the third man to K., “this punishment is both just and unavoidable.” “Don’t listen to him,” said Willem, interrupting himself only to quickly bring his hand to his mouth when it had received a stroke of the cane, “we’re only being punished because you made a complaint against us. Nothing would have happened to us otherwise, not even if they’d found out what we’d done. Can you call that justice? Both of us, me especially, we’d proved our worth as good police officers over a long period – you’ve got to admit yourself that as far as official work was concerned we did the job well – things looked good for us, we had prospects, it’s quite certain that we would’ve been made whip-men too, like this one, only he had the luck not to have anyone make a complaint about him, as you really don’t get many complaints like that. Only that’s all finished now, Mr. K., our careers are at an end, we’re going to have to do work now that’s far inferior to police work and besides all this we’re going to get this terrible, painful beating.” “Can the cane really cause so much pain, then?” asked K., testing the cane that the whip-man swang in front of him. “We’re going to have to strip off totally naked,” said Willem. “Oh, I see,” said K., looking straight at the whip-man, his skin was burned brown like a sailor’s, and his face showed health and vigour. “Is there then no possibility of sparing these two their beating?” he asked him. “No,” said the whip-man, shaking his head with a laugh. “Get undressed!” he ordered the policemen. And to K. he said, “You shouldn’t believe everything they tell you, it’s the fear of being beaten, it’s already made them a bit weak in the head. This one here, for instance,” he pointed at Willem, “all that he told you about his career prospects, it’s just ridiculous. Look at him, look how fat he is – the first strokes of the cane will just get lost in all that fat. Do you know what it is that’s made him so fat? He’s in the habit of, everyone that gets arrested by him, he eats their breakfast. Didn’t he eat up your breakfast? Yeah, I thought as much. But a man with a belly like that can’t be made into a whip-man and never will be, that is quite out of the question.” “There are whip-men like that,” Willem insisted, who had just released the belt of this trousers. “No,” said the whip-man, striking him such a blow with the cane on his neck that it made him wince, “you shouldn’t be listening to this, just get undressed.” “I would make it well worth your while if you would let them go,” said K., and without looking at the whip-man again – as such matters are best carried on with both pairs of eyes turned down – he pulled out his wallet. “And then you’d try and put in a complaint against me, too,” said the whip-man, “and get me flogged. No, no!” “Now, do be reasonable,” said K., “if I had wanted to get these two punished I would not now be trying to buy their freedom, would I. I could simply close the door here behind me, go home and see or hear nothing more of it. But that’s not what I’m doing, it really is of much more importance to me to let them go free; if I had realised they would be punished, or even that they might be punished, I would never have named them in the first place as they are not the ones I hold responsible. It’s the organisation that’s to blame, the high officials are the ones to blame.” “That’s how it is!” shouted the policemen, who then immediately received another blow on their backs, which were by now exposed. “If you had a senior judge here beneath your stick,” said K., pressing down the cane as he spoke to stop it being raised once more, “I really would do nothing to stop you, on the contrary, I would even pay you money to give you all the more strength.” “Yeah, that’s all very plausible, what you’re saying there,” said the whip-man, “only I’m not the sort of person you can bribe. It’s my job to flog people, so I flog them.” Franz, the policeman, had been fairly quiet so far, probably in expectation of a good result from K.’s intervention, but now he stepped forward to the door wearing just his trousers, kneeled down hanging on to K.’s arm and whispered, “Even if you can’t get mercy shown for both of us, at least try and get me set free. Willem is older than me, he’s less sensitive than me in every way, he even got a light beating a couple of years ago, but my record’s still clean, I only did things the way I did because Willem led me on to it, he’s been my teacher both for good and bad. Down in front of the bank my poor bride is waiting for me at the entrance, I’m so ashamed of myself, it’s pitiful.” His face was flowing over with tears, and he wiped it dry on K.’s coat. “I’m not going to wait any longer,” said the whip-man, taking hold of the cane in both hands and laying in to Franz while Willem cowered back in a corner and looked on secretly, not even daring to turn his head. Then, the sudden scream that shot out from Franz was long and irrevocable, it seemed to come not from a human being but from an instrument that was being tortured, the whole corridor rang with it, it must have been heard by everyone in the building. “Don’t shout like that!”, called out K., unable to prevent himself, and, as he looked anxiously in the direction from which the servitor would come, he gave Franz a shove, not hard, but hard enough for him to fall down unconscious, clawing at the ground with his hands by reflex; he still did not avoid being hit; the rod still found him on the floor; the tip of the rod swang regularly up and down while he rolled to and fro under its blows. And now one of the servitors appeared in the distance, with another a few steps behind him. K. had quickly thrown the door shut, gone over to one of the windows overlooking the yard and opened it. The screams had completely stopped. So that the servitor wouldn’t come in, he called out, “It’s only me!” “Good evening, chief clerk,” somebody called back. “Is there anything wrong?” “No, no,” answered K., “it’s only a dog yelping in the yard.” There was no sound from the servitors so he added, “You can go back to what you were doing.” He did not want to become involved with a conversation with them, and so he leant out of the window. A little while later, when he looked out in the corridor, they had already gone. Now, K. remained at the window, he did not dare go back into the junk room, and he did not want to go home either. The yard he looked down into was small and rectangular, all around it were offices, all the windows were now dark and only those at the very top caught a reflection of the moon. K tried hard to see into the darkness of one corner of the yard, where a few handcarts had been left behind one another. He felt anguish at not having been able to prevent the flogging, but that was not his fault, if Franz had not screamed like that – clearly it must have caused a great deal of pain but it’s important to maintain control of oneself at important moments – if Franz had not screamed then it was at least highly probable that K. would have been able to dissuade the whip-man. If all the junior officers were contemptible why would the whip-man, whose position was the most inhumane of all, be any exception, and K. had noticed very clearly how his eyes had lit up when he saw the banknotes, he had obviously only seemed serious about the flogging to raise the level of the bribe a little. And K. had not been ungenerous, he really had wanted to get the policemen freed; if he really had now begun to do something against the degeneracy of the court then it was a matter of course that he would have to do something here as well. But of course, it became impossible for him to do anything as soon as Franz started screaming. K. could not possibly have let the junior bank staff, and perhaps even all sorts of other people, come along and catch him by surprise as he haggled with those people in the junk room. Nobody could really expect that sort of sacrifice of him. If that had been his intention then it would almost have been easier, K. would have taken his own clothes off and offered himself to the whip-man in the policemen’s place. The whip-man would certainly not have accepted this substitution anyway, as in that way he would have seriously violated his duty without gaining any benefit. He would most likely have violated his duty twice over, as court employees were probably under orders not to cause any harm to K. while he was facing charges, although there may have been special conditions in force here. However things stood, K. was able to do no more than throw the door shut, even though that would still do nothing to remove all the dangers he faced. It was regrettable that he had given Franz a shove, and it could only be excused by the heat of the moment.
In the distance, he heard the steps of the servitors; he did not want them to be too aware of his presence, so he closed the window and walked towards the main staircase. At the door of the junk room he stopped and listened for a little while. All was silent. The two policemen were entirely at the whip-man’s mercy; he could have beaten them to death. K. reached his hand out for the door handle but drew it suddenly back. He was no longer in any position to help anyone, and the servitors would soon be back; he did, though, promise himself that he would raise the matter again with somebody and see that, as far as it was in his power, those who really were guilty, the high officials whom nobody had so far dared point out to him, received their due punishment. As he went down the main stairway at the front of the bank, he looked carefully round at everyone who was passing, but there was no girl to be seen who might have been waiting for somebody, not even within some distance from the bank. Franz’s claim that his bride was waiting for him was thus shown to be a lie, albeit one that was forgivable and intended only to elicit more sympathy.
The policemen were still on K.’s mind all through the following day; he was unable to concentrate on his work and had to stay in his office a little longer than the previous day so that he could finish it. On the way home, as he passed by the junk room again, he opened its door as if that had been his habit. Instead of the darkness he expected, he saw everything unchanged from the previous evening, and did not know how he should respond. Everything was exactly the same as he had seen it when he had opened the door the previous evening. The forms and bottles of ink just inside the doorway, the whip-man with his cane, the two policemen, still undressed, the candle on the shelf, and the two policemen began to wail and call out “Mr. K.!” K. slammed the door immediately shut, and even thumped on it with his fists as if that would shut it all the firmer. Almost in tears, he ran to the servitors working quietly at the copying machine. “Go and get that junk room cleared out!” he shouted, and, in amazement, they stopped what they were doing. “It should have been done long ago, we’re sinking in dirt!” They would be able to do the job the next day, K. nodded, it was too late in the evening to make them do it there and then as he had originally intended. He sat down briefly in order to keep them near him for a little longer, looked through a few of the copies to give the impression that he was checking them and then, as he saw that they would not dare to leave at the same time as himself, went home tired and with his mind numb.
The Trial by Franz Kafka