Unfortunately I was not ill. The next day I was obliged to leave the infirmary..My dungeon again received me.
Not ill! indeed, I am young, healthful, and strong; the blood flows freely in my veins; my limbs obey my will; I am robust in mind and body, constituted for a long life. Yes, all this is true; and yet, nevertheless, I have an illness, a fatal illness, an illness given by the hand of man!
Since I came out of the infirmary, a vivid idea has occupied me; a thought which affects me to madness; it is, that I might have escaped, had they left me there! Those physicians, those sisters of charity seemed to take an interest in me. "To die so young! and by such a death!" One would have imagined they pitied me by their pressing round my bed. Bah! it was curiosity! and then, these people may very well cure one of a fever but not of a sentence of death. And it would be so easy for them! only an open door! What difference would it make to them?
[P. 96] I have no chance now! My plea will be rejected, because all was legal; the witnesses gave correct evidence, the counsel pleaded well, the judges decided carefully. I do not reckon upon it, unless...No, folly I there is no hope. The plea is a cord which holds you suspended over an abyss, and which you feel giving way at each instant until it breaks! It is as if the axe of the guillotine took six weeks to fall.
If I could obtain my pardon!--my pardon! From whom? for what? and by what means? It is impossible that I should be pardoned. An example as they say!
I have only three steps to make: Bicêtre, the Conciergerie, the Place de la Grève.
[P. 97] XVI.
During the few hours I passed at the infirmary, I seated myself at a window in the sunshine, for the afternoon had become fine, and I enjoyed all the sun which the gratings of the window would allow me.
I sat thus, my heavy and fevered head within my hands, my elbows on my knees, my feet on the bar of the chair; for dejection had made me stoop, and sink within myself, as if I had neither bone nor muscular power.
The stifling odor of the prison oppressed me more than ever; I still fancied the noise from the convicts' chains rung in my ears; I was almost overcome with disgust for Bicêtre. It seemed to me that the good God should take pity on me, and at least send a little bird to sing there, opposite, on the edge of the roof.
I know not if it was the good God or a demon which granted my wish; but almost at the moment I uttered it, I heard beneath my window a voice,--not that of a bird, but far. better; the pure, fresh, velvet voice of young girl of fifteen!
[P. 98] I raised my head with a start; I listened with avidity to the song she sung. It was a slow and plaintive air, a sad yet beautiful melody; here are the words:
C'est dans la rue du Mail,
Ou j'ai été coltigé,
Par trois coquins da railles,
Sur roes sique' ont foncé,LirlonfA maluré.
I cannot say how bitter was my disappointment. The voice continued:
Sur roes sique' ont foncé,
Ils m'ont mis la tartouve,
Grand Meudon est aboulé,
Dans mon trimin rencontre,
Un peigre du quartier,
Un peigre du quarrier,
--Va-t'en dire à ma largue,
Que-je suis enfourraillé,
[P. 99] Ma largue tout en colère,
M'dit: Qa 'as-tu douc morrfillè
M'dit: Qu 'as-tu done morfillé?
--J'al fait suer un chène,
Son auberg j'ai enganté,
Son auberg et sa toquante,
Et ses attach's de cés,
Et sis attach's de cés,
Ma largu' part pour Versailles,
Aux pieds d'sa majesté,
Eile lui fonce un babillard,
Pour m'fair' defourrailler,
Pour m'faire defourrailler,
--Ah! si j'en défourraille,
Ma largue j'entiferai,
[P.100] J'li ferai porter fontage,
Et souliers galuchés,
Et souliers galuchés,
Mais grand dabe qui s'fâche,
Dit:--Par mon coloquet.
Où il n'y a pas de plancher,Lirlonfa maluré,-- (1)
I heard no more and would not have been able to listen any longer. The meaning, half understood and half hidden, of this horrible lament; this struggle of the brigand with the watch, this robber whom he meets and sends for his wife,--this dreadful message, J'ai fait suer un chêne et ce suis enfourraillé;(2) the wife who goes to Versailles with a petition, and this Majesé who indignantly exclaims that he will make the guilty man dance, la danse où il n'y a pas de plancher;(3) --and all this sung to the sweetest air, and by the sweetest voice that ever soothed human ear! I was shocked, disgusted, overcome. It was a repulsive idea, that all these monstrous [p. 101] words proceeded from a fresh rosy mouth: it was like the slime of a snail over a rosebud.
I cannot express what I felt; I was at once pained and gratified; the idiom of crime, a language at once sanguinary and grotesque,--united to the voice of a young girl, that graceful transition, from the voice of childhood to the voice of woman. All these deformities of words, delightfully sung, cadenced, rounded !
Ah! what infamous thing is a prison! It contains a venom which assails all within its pestilential reach. Everything withers there, even the song of a girl of fifteen! If you find a bird within its courts, it has mud on its wing. If you gather a beauteous flower there, it exhales poison!
[P. 102] XVII.
Oh, if I could only escape, how I would fly across the fields!
No, I must not run--that would draw attention and make people suspicious. On the contrary, I must walk slowly, with my head up, humming a tune. I ought to have an old handkerchief round the lower part of my face, a blue one with a pattern in red on it. It is a capital disguise, all the market-gardeners in the suburbs wear them.
I know of a little clump of trees near Arcueil, by the side of a marsh. Once when I was at school I came there with my playmates to fish for frogs; I would hide myself there until night.
As it grew dark, I recommenced my journey. I would go to Vincennes. No, the river is in the way, I will go to Arpajon. Perhaps it would be better to go by Saint-Germain, and go to Hivre, there I could embark for England. No matter! I come to Longjumeau. A policeman passes me; he asks for my passport...I am lost!
[P. 103] Ah! hapless dreamer, first break through the three-foot wall that surrounds you! Death! Death!
I recollect when I was quite a child they brought me to Bicêtre to see the great wall, and the mad people!
[P. 104] XVIII
Whilst I was writing this my lamp faded, daylight appeared, and the clock of the chapel struck six.
What can be the meaning of what has since happened? The jailer on duty came into my cell; he took off his cap, bowed to me, apologized for disturbing me, and making an effort to soften his rough voice, inquired what I wished to have for my breakfast.
A shudder has come over me;--Is it to lake place to-day?
[P. 105] XIX.
It is for to-day!
The governor of the prison himself came to visit me. He asked me how he could serve or accommodate me; he expressed a hope that I had no complaint to make respecting him, or his subordinates; and he inquired with interest regarding my health, and how I had passed the night. On leaving, he called me Sir!
It is for to-day!
[P. 106] XX
The jailer thinks I have no cause of complaint against him or hissubordinates. He is right, and it would be wrong of me to complain; they have done their duty, they have kept me safe; and then they have been complaisant at my arrival and departure. Ought I not to be satisfied?
This good jailer, with his benign smile, his soft words, his eye, which flatters and spies, his coarse heavy hands, is the incarnation of a prison! He is Bicêtre in the form of a man. Everything around me reminds me of a prison; I recognize it in everything, in the human figure, as in the iron bars and bolts: this wall is a prison in stone, this door a prison in wood, these turnkeys are prisoners in flesh and bone. The prison is a kind of horrible being complete and indivisible, half building and half man. I am its victim; it grasps me, it wraps me in its folds, it shuts me up in its granite walls, it padlocks me with its [P. 107] iron bolts, and it watches me through the eyes of its jailers.
Ah! unhappy wretch that I am, what is to become of me, what are they going to do with me?
[P. 108] XXI
Now I am calm. All is finished, quite finished! I am relieved from the dreadful anxiety into which I was thrown by the director's visit. For I confess I still felt hope.
Now, thank God! Hope is gone.This is what has happened:
At half-past six, no, a quarter to seven, the door of my cell was opened: an old man with white hair entered, dressed in a brown great coat. He unfastened it, and beneath I saw a black cassock and bands. It was a priest.
He was not the usual chaplain to the prison. This was ominous.
He seated himself opposite to me, with a quiet smile: then shook his head, and raised his eyes to heaven. That is to say to the vault of my cell. I understood him.
"My son," said he, "are you prepared?" I answered, in a low tone:
"I am not prepared, but I am ready."
Then my sight became troubled; a chill damp pervaded my frame. I felt the veins on my temples swelling, and a confused murmur in my ears. Whilst I wavered on my chair as though [p. 109] asleep, the old man continued speaking. At. least, so it appeared to me, for I think I remember seeing his lips move, and his hand raised.
The door was opened again; the noise of the lock roused me from my reverie, and the priest from his discourse. A person dressed in black entered, accompanied by the director of the prison, and bowed profoundly to me: he carried a roll of paper in his hand.
"Sir," said he, with a courteous smile, "I am an usher of the royal court at Paris. I have the honor to bring you a message from the prosecutor-general."
The first agitation was over~ all my presence of mind returned.
"The prosecutor-general," said I," asks for my head at once? What an honor for him to write to me, I hope that my death will give him great pleasure, for he worked too hard for it not to be a matter of indifference to him."
I said all that, and then continued in a firm voice: "Read on, sir."
He then read in a sing-song voice, a long, technically-expressed paper, the purport of which was the rejection of my plea.
"The execution of the sentence will be today, in the Place de Grève," added he, when he had finished reading, without raising his eyes from the paper. "We shall leave for the Conciergefie at half-past seven precisely. My dear [p. 110] sir, will you have the extreme goodness to accompany me?"
For some instants I had no longer heard him; for while his eyes were fixed on, the paper, the director was occupied talking to the priest: and I looked at the door which they had left half open!...Ah! hapless me! Four sentinels in the corridor.
The usher repeated the question, looking at me this time.
"When you please," I said, "at your convenience."
He bowed and said:
"Ishall have the honor of coming for you, then, in half an hour."
Then they left me alone.
Oh! for some means of escape. My God! any means whatever! I must make my escape! I must! immediately! By the doors, by the windows, by the roof! Even though I leave shreds of my flesh on the rafters.
Oh! rage! demons! malediction! It would take months to pierce this wall with efficient tools. And I have not one nail, nor one hour!
[P. 111] XXII.
But the journey is worth being recorded.
At half-past seven, the usher again presented himself at the threshold of my dungeon. "Sir," said he, "I wait for you." Alas! and I saw four others with him! I rose, and advanced one step. It appeared to me I could not make a second. My head was so heavy, and my limbs so feeble: but I made an effort to conquer my weakness, and assumed an appearance of firmness, Prior to leaving the cell, I gave it a final look; I had almost become attached to it. Besides, I left it empty and open, which gives so strange an appearance to a dungeon.
However, it will not be long untenanted. The. turnkeys, said they expected some one this evening, a prisoner who was then being tried at the court of assizes.
At the turn of the corridor, the chaplain rejoined us; he had just breakfasted.
[P. 112] At the threshold of the jail, the director took me kindly by the hand,--he had reinforced my escort by four veterans.
By the door of the infirmary a dying old man exclaimed, "Until we meet again!"
We arrived in the court-yard, where I could breathe,again freely, and this refreshed me greatly.
We did not walk long in the open air. A carriage was stationed in the first court. It was the same which had brought me there. A sort of oblong van, divided into two sections by a transverse grating of close wire. Each of the two sections had a door; one in the front, one in the back of the cart. The whole so dirty, so black, so dusty, that the hearse for paupers is a state carriage by comparison.
Before I buried myself in this moving tomb, I cast a look round the yard,--one of those despairing looks which seem to ask a miracle. The court was already encumbered with spectators.
Like the day when the convicts departed, there was a slight, chilling shower of the season; it is raining still, and doubtless there will be rain all the day,--which will last when I am no more!
The roads were frightful, the court was drenched. I had the pleasure of seeing the crowd standing in the mud!
[P. 113] We entered the van. The messenger and a gendarme in the front compartment, the priest, myself, and a gendarme, in the other, with four mounted gendarmes around the carriage. Thus, not counting the postilion, there were eight against one.
As I entered it, an old gray-eyed woman who stood near exclaimed, "I like seeing this, even better than seeing the galley-convicts!"
I can conceive this. It is a spectacle more easily taken in at one view. Nothing divides the attention; there is but one man, and on this isolated being there is as much misery heaped as on all the other convicts together.
The van passed with a dull noise under the gateway, and the heavy doors of the Bicêtre were closed after us. I felt myself moving, but in stupor, like a man fallen into a lethargy, who can neither move nor cry out, and who fancies he feels that he is being buried alive. I listened vaguely to the peal of bells on the collars of the post-horses which drew the van, the iron wheels grating over various substances in the road, the clacking whips of the potilion, the galloping of the gendarmes round the carriage: all seemed like a whirlwind which bore me away.
Through the bars of a peep-hole in front of me my eyes were fixed mechanically on an inscription carved in large letters above [p. 114] the main door to Becêtre: HOSPICE DE LA FIEILLESSE.
"Ha," said I to myself, "it seems that there are some people whogrow there," and, as my mind was so stupefied with grief, I only conceived ideas as in a dream. Suddenly the vmi changed its course and I saw the towers of Nôtre-Dame in the distance, blue and half hidden in the smoke of Paris.
At once my ideas changed from Bicêtre to Nôtre-Dame. "Those who will be on the tower with the flag will see my execution well," said I to myself smiling stupidly.
I think it was at that moment that the priest addressed me again; I patiently let him speak; I had already in my ears the noise of the wheels, the galloping horses, and the postilion's whip; therefore it was only one more incomprehensible noise.
I listened in silence to that flow of monotonous words, which deadened my thoughts like the murmur of a brook; and they passed before my torpid mind, always varied yet always the same, like the crooked elms we passed by the roadside. The short and jerking voice of the messenger in the front of the van suddenly aroused me.
"Well, Monsleur l'Abbé," said" he, in almost a gay tone, "what news have you to-day?"
[P. 115] It was to the chaplain that he turned and spoke thus.
The chaplain, who talked to me without ceasing, and who was deafened by the carriaget made no answer.
"Hé, hé" resumed the usher, raising his voice to drown the sound of the wheels, "what an infernal carriage this is!"
Infernal, indeed, for I found it so.
"It is the jolting and the rumbling, no doubt, that prevents your hearing me--what was I saying? Ah! your reverence, have you heard to-day's news that is exciting all Paris?" ·
I trembled; was he speaking of me?
"No," answered the priest, who had at last heard him, "I have not had time to read the morning papers; but I suppose I shall see it all in the evening. When I am much engaged, I tell our porter to keep them for me, and I read them on my return."
"Bah!" replied the usher, "it is impossible that you have not heard what I mean. The news of Paris--the news of this morning.
I interrupted him: "I believe I know."
The usher looked at me.
"You? really! and, pray what is your opinion about it?"
[P. 116] "You are inquisitive," said I.
"How so, sir?" replied he. "Everyone should have a political opinion: I esteem you too much to suppose that you are without one. As to myself, I am quite in favor of re-establishing the National Guard. I was a sergeant in my company; and, faith! it was very agreeable to..."
I interrupted him.
"I did not think this was the subject in question!"
"What did you suppose, then? You said you knew the news."
"I spoke of something else with which Paris is also occupied to-day."
The fool did not understand, his curiosity was awakened.
"More news! Where the deuce could you learn news? What is it, my dear sir? Do you know what it is, Monsieur l'Abbé? Do let me hear all about it, I beg. I like news, you see, to relate to the president; it amuses him."
And so on. He turned to the priest, and then to me, and I only answered by shrugging my shoulders.
"Well," said he, "what are you thinking of?"
"I am thinking," said I, "that I shall be past thinking this evening."
[P. 117] "Oh, that's it," returned he. "Come, come, you are too sad. Mr. Castaing conversed on the day of his execution."
Then, after a pause:
"I accompanied Mr. Papavoine on his last day. He wore his otter-skin cap, and smoked his cigar. As for the young men of la Rochelle, they only spoke among themselves, but still they spoke."
Another pause, and then he continued;
"Fools! Enthusiasts! they seemed to scorn the whole world. As for you, I really think you are too pensive, young man."
"Young man?" I repeated. "I am older than you; every quarter of an hour which passes makes me a year older."
He turned round, looked at me some minutes with stupid astonishment, and then began to titter.
"Come, you are joking; older than I am? why I might be your grandfather."
"I have no wish to jest," I answered gravely.
He opened his snuff-box.
"Here, my good sir, don't be angry. Take apinch of snuff, and don't bear malice."
"Do not fear," said I, "I shall not have long to bear it against you."
At this moment the snuff-box which he extended to me ratine against the grating which [p. 118] separated us. A jolt caused it to strike rather violently, and it fell, wide open, under the feet of the gendarme.
"Cursed grating!" cried the usher.
Then, turning to me, he added:
"Now, am I not unlucky? I have lost all my snuff. "
"I lose more than you," said I, smiling. He had tried to pick up his snuff, muttering between his teeth:
"More than I! that's very easily said. No more snuff until I reach Paris! it's terrible."
The chaplain then addressed him with some words of consolation; and I know not if I were pre-occupied, but it seemed to me to be part of the exhortation of which the commencement, had been addressed to me. By degrees conversation increased between the chaplain and the officer; and I became again lost in thought.
We approached the barrier, and although I was still very pre-occupied, I noticed that Paris was noisier than usual.
The van was stopped for a minute before the toll-gate, and the inspector examined it. Had it contained a sheep or an ox, which was going to be slaughtered, they would have required some money; but a human head pays no duty! We passed.
[P. 119] Crossing the boulevard, the carriage trotted quickly through those old and crooked streels of the Faubourg Saint-Marceau and of the Cité, which twist and cross each other like the many paths of an ant-hill. On the pavement of these narrow streets the rolling of the wheels became so noisy and rapid, that I could hear no other sound, though that people exclaimed, as the van passed, and bands of children followed its track. I also fancied also I occasionally saw in th cross-streets ragged men displaying in their hands a bundle of printed papers, their mouths, open as if vociferating something, while the passers stopped to purchase.
The clock of the Palais struck half past eight as we arrived in the court of the Conciergerie. The sight of its wide staircase, its dark chapel, its sombre gates, made me shudder; and when the carriage stopped, I fancied the beatings of my heart stopped also.
But I collected my strength; the door was opened; with the rapidity of lightning I jumped from the, moving prison, and passed between two lines of soldiers: already, there was a crowd formed on my path.
[P. 120] XXIII
As I walked through the public galleries of the Palais de Justice I felt almost free and at ease, but all my resolution abandoned me when I reached the low doors, private stairs, and interior corridors, which are only entered by the condemned.
The usher still accompanied me: the priest had left me for a couple of hours; he had some business to attend to.
I was then taken to the director, into whose charge the usher gave me. They made an exchange. The director told him to wait a moment, as he had some game for him to take back in ihe van to the Bicêtre. No doubt it was the man condemned to-day. He is to sleep to-night on the bundle of straw which I have not had time to wear out.
"Oh! very well," said the usher to the director, "I will wait with pleasure; we can make out the two papers together, and it will be very convenient."
They then placed me in a small room, adjoining the director's office; and left me alone, well locked up.
[P.121] I know not of what I was thinking, or how long I had been there, when a sudden and loud burst of laughter in my ear, dispersed my reverie.
I raised my eyes with a start. I was no longer alone in the cell; a man was beside me. He was about fifty-five years old, middle-sized, wrinkled, stooping and bald: with sinister cast-in his gray eyes, and a bitter sneer on his countenance; he was dirty, half-clothed, ragged, disgusting.
It seemed that the door had been opened, and he had been thrust in without my having perceived it. If death would only come thus.
We looked at each 'other steadfastly for some moments; he prolonging his bitter laugh, while I felt half astonished, half alarmed.
"Who are you?"'said I, to him at last.
"That is a funny question," said he. "I am a friauche."
"A friauche?" said I,. "what do you mean?"
This question redoubled his merriment.
"Why" cried he, in the midst of a shout of laughter, "it means that the knife will play with my head in a basket six weeks hence, as it will with thine in six hours! Ha! ha! thou seemst to understand now!"
Indeed I was pale, and my hair stood on end. This then was the other condemned [p. 122] for life, with three letters branded on my shoulder;--I'll show them to you if you like; They call that sort of justice the relapse. So here I was, a cheval de retour (return horse--sent back to the galleys). I was brought back to Toulon: this time put among the bonnets verts (Green caps--condemned for life) so now I decided to escape. I had only three wails to pierce, two chains to break, and I had one nail! I escaped. They fired the signal gun, for we convicts are like the cardinals of Rome, dressed in red, and they fire cannons when we depart! Their powder went to the sparrows! This time, no yellow passport, but then no money either: I met some comrades in the neighborhood who also served their time, or broken their chains. Their coire (chief) proposed to me to join the band, They killed on the trimar (highway). I accepted, and I began to kill, so as to live. Sometimes we attacked a diligence, sometimes it was a post-chaise, sometimes a grazier on holeback, We took the money, we let the horses go, and buried the bodies under a tree, taking care that their feet did not appear; and then we danced on the graves, so that the ground might not seem fresh broken. I grew old this way, hiding in the bushes, sleeping in the air, hunted from wood to wood, but at least free and my own master. Everything [p. 125] has an end, and this like the rest; the marchands de lacets (gendarmes) one night caught us at our tricks: my fanandels (comrades) escaped; but I, the oldest, remained under the claw of these cats in cocked hats. They brought me here. I had already mounted all the steps of the ladder, except one. Whether I had now taken a handkerchief or a life, was all the same for me. There was but one relapse to give me. I only had to pass the faucher (executioner). My business has been short: faith, I began to grow old and good for nothing. My father had married la veuve, (the gibbet--been hanged.) I am going to retire to the Abbay de Monte-à-Regret (the guillotine): that's all, comrade!"
I remained stupefied during the recital, He laughed louder than at the beginning, and tried to take my hand. I drew back in horror.
"Friend," cried he, "you don't seem game. Don't flinch on the carline (scaffold). See, there is one bad moment to pass on the placarde (the Place de Grève), but that's so soon done. I should like to be there to show you the step! Faith, I've a great mind not to plead, if they will finish me with you to-day. The same priest will serve us both. You see I'm a good fellow, eh? I say, shall we be friends?"
Again he advanced a step nearer to me.
[P. 126] "Sir," I answered, repulsing him, "I thank you."
Fresh bursts of laughter at my answer.
"Ah! ha! sir, you must be a marquis! A marquis, at least!"
I interrupted him:
"My friend, I require reflection: leave me in peace."
The gravity of my tone rendered him instantly thoughtful. He shook his gray and nearly bald head.
"I understand now," he murmured between his teeth--"the sanglier (the priest.)"
After a few minutes' silence, he said to me, almost timidly: "Sir, you are a marquis; that is all very well;--but you have on such a nice great coat, which will not be of much use to you. The executioner will take it. Give it to me, and I will sell it for tobacco."
I took off my great coat and gave it to him. He began to clap his hands with childish joy; then looking at my shirt sleeves, and seeing that I shivered:
"You are cold, sir; put on this; it rains, and you will be wet through: besides you ought to go decently on the wagon!"
While saying this, he took off his coarse gray woolen jacket, and put my arms into it, which I allowed him to do unconsciously.
[P. 127] Then I leaned against the wall, and I cannot describe the effect this man had on me. He was examining the coat which I had given him, and uttered each moment an exclamation of delight.
"The pockets are quite new! The collar is not in the least worn! It will bring me at least fifteen francs. What luck! I shall have tobacco during all my six weeks."
The door opened again. They had come for both of us; to conduct me to the room where the condemned finally await their execution: and to lead him away to Bicête. He placed himself, laughingly, amongst them, and said to the gendarmes:
"I say! don't make a mistake; we have changed skins, the gentleman and I; but don't take me in his place. The devil! That wouldn't suit meat all, now that I can have tobacco!"
[P. 128] XXIV
That old scoundrel! he took my great coat from me, for i did not give it to him; and then he left me this rag, his odious jaCket. For whom shall I be taken?
It was not from indifference, or from charity, that I let him take it. No: but because he was stronger than I! If I had refused, he would have beaten me with those great hands. Ah! indeed, charity, I was full of bad:feeling.
I should like to have strangled him with my own hands, the old thief! To have trampled him under my feet.
I feel my heart full of rage and bitterness: and my nature turned to gall. Death renders one wicked.
[P. 129] XXV.
They led me into a cell furnished with nothing but four walls, with plenty of bars to the window and many bolts on the door; all of which was to be expected.
I asked for a table, a chair and writing materials. They brought me all these.
Then I asked for a bed, The turnkey eyed me with astonishment, and seemed mentally to say: "What will be the use of it?"
However they made up a chaff bed in a corner. But at the same time a gendarme came to install himself in what was my room. Are they afraid that I will strangle myself with the mattress?
[P. 130] XXVI
It is ten o'clock.
Oh! my poor little girl. Six hours more, and I wilt be dead. I wii be solne senseless thing to be stretched out on a cold table in an amphitheatre; a head to be cast by one party, a trunk to be dissected by another: then all to be thrown together into a bier, and dispatched to Clamart.
This is what they are going to do with your father; by men, none of whom hate me; who all pity me, and all of whom could save me! They, are going to kill me. Do you understand that, Marie? To kill me in cold blood; a ceremonial for the general good Ah, good God!
Poor little girl! your father, who loved you so well, your father who kissed your little white neck, who passed his hands so fondly through the ringlets of your silken hair; who danced you on his knee, and every evening joined your two little hands to pray to God!
Who will do all this for you in future? Who now will love you? All children of your age have fathers, except you. How will you become accustomed to do without New [p. 131] Years, presents, pretty toys, bonbons and kisses. How will you, unfortunate orphan, do without food and drink?
Oh! if the jury had only seen you, my pretty little Marie, they would have understood it was wrong to kill the father of a child three years old.
And when she grows up, what will become of her? Her father will be one of the bywords of the people of Paris. She will blush for me and my name; she will be despised; rejected, reviled, on account of him who loved her with all the tenderness of his heart. Oh! my little beloved Marie. Can it be true that you will have shame and horror of me?
Wretch! what crime have I committed, and what crime will I commit against society!
Oh! can it be true that I am to die before the close of day? Can it really be that this is me? Those distant shouts which I hear, that mass of animated spectators who are already hastening to the quays, those gendarmes preparing in their barracks, this priest in the black robe, this other man with the red hands! Is it all for me? Is it I who am going to die? This same self which is here, which lives, moves, breathes, which is seated at this table, this self which I touch and can feel, and whose clothing hangs in folds here!
[P. 132] XXVII
If I Only knew how it is built, and in what way one dies upon it;--but it is horrible, I do not know this. The very name of it is frightful, and I cannot understand how I have hitherto been able to write and utter it.
The combination of these ten letters, their aspect, their appearance are, well calculated to awaken a frightful idea, and the unlucky doctor,who invented the thing had a name predestined for it.
The idea I attach to this hateful name is vague, undefined, and therefore more sinister. I construct and demolish in my mind continually its hideous scaffolding.
I dare not ask a question about it, yet it is dreadful not to know what it is, and how to behave upon it. It seems there is a sort of see-saw, and that you are laid on your stomach--ah! my hair will be white before my head falls!
[P. 133] XXVIII
I had a glimpse of it once.
I was crossing the Place de Grève in a carriage, about eleven o' clock one morning. Suddenly the carnage stopped. There was a crowd the square; I looked oout of the window: a dense throng of men, women and children filled the square and the the neighboring streets. Above the crowd, I saw a kind of frame of red wood, which three men were building.
A criminal was to be executed the same day, and they were building the machine.
I turned away my head before seeing it. Close to the carriage there was a woman, who said to a child,--
"Now, look! the axe slides badly: they are going to grease the slide with a candle-end."
They are probably doing the same to-day. Eleven o'clock has just struck. No doubt they are greasing the slide.
Oh! unhappy creature, this time I shall not turn away my head.
[P. 134] XXIX
Oh! for a pardon! My reprieve! perhaps I shall be pardoned. The king has no dislike to me. Let some one seek my lawyer! Quick, the lawyer! He was right, and I should prefer the galleys. Five years of the galleys, or twenty years,--or even the galleys for life, branded with the red-hot iron. But give me my life!
A galley-slave can move, come and go, and see the sunshine.
[P. 135] XXX.
The priest has returned.
He has white hair, a very gentle look, a good and respectable countenance, and is indeed an excellent and charitable man. This. morning I saw him empty his purse into the hands of the prisoners. How comes it then that his voice causes no emotion, and he does not ever seem affected by his own theme? How is it that he has as yet said nothing which has won on my intellect or my heart?
This morning, I was bewildered. I scareely heard what he said; his words seemed to me useless, and I remained indifferent: they glided away like those drops of rain off the window-panes of my cell.
Nevertheless, when he came just now to my room, his appearance did me good. Amongst all mankind he is the only one to whom I am still a man, said I to myself. And I felt an ardent thirst for good and consoling words.
When we were seated, he on the chair, and I on the bed, he said to me, "My son,--" This word opened, my heart. He continued:
"My son, do you believe in God?"
[P. 136] "Yes, father," I answered him.
"Do you believe in the holy Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church?"
"Willingly," said I.
"My son," returned he, "you have an air of doubt."
Then he began tospeak; he spoke a, long time; he uttered a quantity of words; then when he had finished, he rose, and looked at me for the first time since the beginning of his discount; and said:
I declareI had listened to him with avidity at first, then with attention, then with devotion.
I rose, and said:
"Sir, leave me for a time, I beg of you."
He aksed me:
"When shall I return?"
"I will let you know."
Then he withdrew in silence, but shaking his head as though inwardly exclaiming:
No! low as I have fallen, I am not an unbeliever. God is my witness, that I believe in Him. But how did that old man address me? Nothing to be felt, nothing to affect me, nothing to draw forth tears, nothing wltich sprung from his heart to enter into mine--nothing which was addressed from [p. 137] himsetf to myself. On the contrary, there was something vague, inaccenuated, applicable iaacce, to any case, and to none in particular:. emphatic, where it should have been profound, flat where it ought to have been simple; a species of sentimental sermon, and theological elegy. Now and then a quotation in Latin; here and there, the names of Saint Augustine and Saint Gregory; and others of the calendar. And throughout he had the air of reciting a lesson which he had already twenty times repeated; seeming to go over a theme almost obliterated in his memory from being so long known. Not a look in his eyes, not an accent in his voice, not a gesture of his hands.
And how could it be otherwise? This priest has the title of chaplain of prison his business is to console and exhort; and he lives by that. Condemned felons are the spring of his eloquence. He receives confession and prays with them--becatlse it is his place todo so. He has advanced in year in conducting men to death: from his youth he has grown accustomed to that which makes others shudder. The dungeon and scaffold are every-day matters with him. He is blasé. Probably he has a diary; one page for the galley-slaves, another for the condemned to death. He receives notice the preceding [p. 138] evening that he will have to altend some one the following day, at a certain hour: he asks, "Is it for the galleys or an execution?" and he asks no more respecting them, but comes next day as a matter of course. In this way it happens that those who go toToulon and those who go to the Grève, are nothing to him, as heis nothing to them.
Oh! that they would bring me, instead of this man, some young curate, some aged priest, taken by chance from the nearest parish. Let them find him at his fireside, reading, and, without warning, say to him: "There is a man who is going to die, and it is reserved for you to console him. You must be there when they bind his hands; you must take a place in the fatal cart, with your crucifix, and conceal the executioner from him; you must be jolted with him over the paving to the Grève; you must pass with him through that horrible crowd which is thirsting for blood; you must embrace him at the foot of the scaffold, and you must remain there until his head is here and the body there!"
Then, when they have said this, let them bring him hither, agitated, palpitating, all shuddering from head to foot. Let me throw myself into his arms; then kneel at his feet, and he will weep, and we will weep together, and he will be eloquent, and I shall be [p. 139] consoled, and my heart will unburthen itself into his heart, and I will accept his God.
I am perhaps wrong to repulse him thus; since he is good and I am bad. Alas! it is not my fault. It is the brand of death which destroys and corrupts everything.
They have just brought me food: as though I should have need of it. A meal delicate, appetizing, a chicken, it seems, and something else. Well! I have tried to eat; but, at the first bite, everything fell from my mouth, so bitter and fetid did it seem.
[P. 140] XXXI
A genfleman has jUSt entered, his hat on his head, who, hardly noticing me, took out his foot-rule and measured the stones of the walls, .meantime speaking to himself aloud, sometimes saying "that is it," and.sometimes "that is not it."
I asked the gendarme who he was. It seems that he is a sort of under-architect employed in the prison. His curiosity has awakened a slight interest in me; he exchanged a few words aside with the turnkeys who accompanied him; then fixed his eyes on me for an instant, gave his head a careless toss, and again began to speak in a loud voice and to continue taking measurements.
His task finished, he came over to me, saying, in his noisy way:
"My good fellow, in six months this prison will be much improved."
And his look seemed to add:
"And you will not enjoy it! so much the worse." He almost smiled. I almost expected him to jeer good-naturedly, as one jokes with a young wife on a wedding night.
[P. 141] My keeper, an old soldier who wears chevrons, undertook to reply:
"Sir,"said he, "one does not speak so loudly in a death chamber."
The architect then went out.
I--I remained there like one of the stones which he had been measuring.
Note the discussion of argot and references to this work in Part 4, Book
7, Chapter 1 of Les Misérables, readily available in print
or online. -pds
(2) [P. 186] "I have sweated an oak and am put in the oven." i.e. has killed a man and is put in prison.
(3) "Dance where there is no floor," i.e., hung.