These five weeks have I dwelt with this idea: always alone with it, always frozen by its presence; always bent under its weight.
Formerly--for it seems to me rather years than weeks since I was a being like any other: each day, each hour, each minute had its idea. My mind, youthful and rich, was full of fancies, which it developed successively, without order or aim, but weaving inexhaustible arabesques on the poor and coarse web of life. Sometimes it was of young girls, sometimes of unbounded possessions, then of battles gained, next of theatres full of sound and light, and then again the young girls and shadowy walks at night beneath spreading chestnut-trees. There was a perpetual revel in my imagination: I might think on what I chose, I was free.
But now, I am a captive! Bodily in irons in a dungeon, and mentally imprisoned in one idea. One horrible, one hideous, one [p. 52] unconquerable idea! I have only one thought, one conviction, one certitude: Condemned to death!
Whatever I do, that frightful thought is always here, like a spectre, beside me, solitary and jealous, banishing all else, haunting me forever, and shaking me with its two icy hands whenever I wish to turn my head away, or to close my eyes. It glides into all forms in which my mind seeks to shun it; mixes itself, like a horrible chant, with all the words which are addressed to me: presses against me even to the odious gratings of my prison. It haunts me while awake,--spies on my convulsive slumbers, and reappears, a vivid incubus, in my dreams under the form of a knife.
I have just started from a troubled sleep, in which I was pursued by this thought: and I made an effort to say to myself, "Oh! it was but a dream!" Well, even before my heavy eyes could read the fatal truth in the dreadful reality which surrounds me, on the damp and reeking dungeon-walls, in the pale rays of my night-lamp, in the rough material of my prison-garb, on the sombre visage of the sentry whose cap gleams through the grating of the door,--it seems to me that already a voice has murmured in my ear: Condemned to death!
[P. 53] II
It was a beautiful morning at the close of August.
My trial had already lasted three days; my name and accusation had collected each morning a knot of spectators, who crowded the benches of the court, as ravens surround a corpse. During three days all the assembly of judges, witnesses, lawyers, and officers, had passed and repassed as a phantasmagoria before my troubled vision. The first two nights, through uneasiness and terror, I had been unable to sleep; on the third, I had slept, from fatigue and exhaustion. I had left the jury deliberating at midnight, and was taken back to the heap of straw in my prison, where I instantly fell into a profound sleep, the sleep of forgetfulness. These were the first hours of repose I had obtained, after long watchfulness.
I was still buried in this oblivion when they sent to have me awakened, and my sound slumber was not broken by the heavy step and iron shoes of the jailer, by the clanking of his keys, or the rusty grating of the lock, to [p. 54] rouse me from my lethargy, it required his harsh voice in my ear, his rough hand on my arm. "Come, rise directly!" I opened my eyes, and started up from my straw bed: it was already daylight. At this moment, through the high and narrow window of my cell, I saw on the ceiling of the next corridor (the only firmament I was allowed to see)that yellow reflection by which eyes, accustomed to the darkness of a prison, recognize sunshine. And oh! how I love sunshine!
"It is a fine day I" said I to the jailer.
He remained a moment without answering me, as if uncertain whether it was worth while to expend a word; then, as if with an effort he coolly murmured:
I remained motionless, my senses half sleeping, with smiling lips, and my eyes fixed on that soft golden reflection which reverberated on the ceiling.
"What a lovely day!" I repeated.
"Yes," answered the man, "they are waiting for you."
These few words, like a web which stops the flight of an insect, flung me back into the reality of my position. I pictured to myself instantly, as in a flash of lightning, that sombre court of justice, the bench of judges, in their robes of sanguine hue, the three rows [p. 55] of stupid-looking witnesses, two gendarmes at the extremity of my bench; black robeswaving, and the heads of the crowd clustering in the depth of the shadow, while I fancied that I felt upon me the fixed look of the twelve jurymen, who had sat up while I slept.
I rose; my teeth chattered, my hands trembled, my limbs were so weak that at the first step I had nearly fallen: however, I followed the jailer.
The two gendarmes waited for me at the door-way of the cell. They replaced my fetters. They had a small complicated lock which they closed carefully. I yield mechanically to them. It was like placing a machine on a machine.
We traversed an interior court: and the balmy air of morning reanimated me. I raised my head. The sky was cloudless, and the warm rays of the sun partially intercepted by the tall chimneys traced brilliant angles of light on the high and sombre walls of the prison. It was indeed a delicious day.
We ascended a winding staircase; we passed a corridor; then another; then a third: and then a low door was opened. A current of hot air, laden with noise, rushed from it: it was the breath of the crowd in the court of assizes which I then entered.
On my appearance, the hall resounded with the clank of arms, and the hum of voices: [p. 56] benches were moved noisily; and while I crossed that long chamber between two masses of people who were walled in by soldiers, I painfully felt myself the centre of attraction to all those fixed and gaping looks.
At this moment I perceived that I was without fetters; but I could not recall where or when they had been removed.
Then there was deep silence. I had reached my place at the bar. The instant that the tumult ceased in the crowd, it ceased also in my ideas: a sudden dearness of perception came to me, and I at once understood plainly, what until then I could not discover in my confused state of mind, that the decisive moment was come! I was brought there to hear my sentence!
Explain it who can, from the manner in which this idea came to my mind, it caused me no terror! The windows were open; the air, and the sounds of the city came freely through them: the room was as light as for a wedding; the cheerful rays of the sun traced here and there the luminous forms of the windows, sometimes lengthened on the flooring, sometimes spreading on a table, sometimes broken by the angles of the walls; and from the brilliant square of each window, the rays' fell through the air in dancing golden beams. The judges, at the extremity of the hall, [p. 57] bore a satisfied appearance,--probably from the anticipation of their labors being soon completed. The face of the president, softly lighted by a reflected sunbeam, had a calm and amiable expression; and a young counsel conversed almost gaily with a handsome woman in a rose bonnet who sat near him.
The jury alone looked wan and exhanilted; but this was apparently from the fatigue of having sat up all night. Nothing in their countenances indicated men who would pass sentence of death; and in the faces of these good bourgeois I could divine nothing but a great desire to sleep.
Opposite to me, a window stood wide open, I heard laugher in the flower market on the quay--beneath; and on the sill of the windbw, a graceful plant, illumined bysunshine, played in the breeze.
How could any sinister idea be formed amongst so many soothing sensations? Surrounded by air and sunshine, I could think, of naught save liberty; hope shone within me; as the day shone around me; and I awaited my sentence with confidence, as one daily calculates on life and liberty.
In the meantime roy counsel arrived, They had been waiting for him. He had just breakfasted freely and with a good appetite. Taking his place he leaned towards me with a smile.
[P. 58] "I have hopes!" said he.
"Oh, surely!" I replied,in the same light tone and smiling also.
"Yes," returned he; "I know nothing as yet of the verdict, but they have doubtless acquitted you of premeditation, and then it will be :only hard labor for life."
What do you mean, sir?" replied I, indignantly; "I would a hundred times prelin death!"
Yes, death! and, besides, said an inward voice, what do I risk in saying that? Has a sentance of death ever been pronounced except at midnight, in a dark and sombre hall lighted only by torches, and. whilst a cold winter's rain, was pouring? But in the month of August, at eight o'clock in the morning, on such a fine day, and with such good jurymen it is impossible! And my eyes wandered to the pretty yellow flower in the sim.
Suddenly the president, who had only waited for my counsel, desired me to rise.The soldiers carried arms; and, with an electric movement all the assembly rose at the same instant. An insignificant: nobody placed at a table below the tribunal, who was, I think, the recorder, read the verdict which the jury had pronounced during my absence. Asickly chill passed over my frame; I leaned against the wall toavoid falling.
[P. 59] "Counsel, have you anything to say why this sentence should not be passed?" demanded the president.
I felt that I had much to say; but I had not the power--my tongue was cleaving to my palate.
My counsel then rose.
His endeavor appeared to be, to mitigate the verdict of the jury, and to substitute the punishment of hard labor for life--by naming which he had rendered me so indignant!
This-indignation must again have been powerful within me, to conquer the thousand emotions which distracted my thoughts. I wished to, repeat aloud what I had already said to him: "Rather a hundred times, death," but my breath failed, and I could only. grasp him by the arm, crying, with convulsive strength, "No!"
The attorney-general replied against my counsel's arguments; and I listened to him with a stupid satisfaction. The judges then left the court, soon returned, and the president read my sentence.
"Condemned to death!" cried the crowd: and as I was led away, the assembly pressed on my steps with avidity, while I walked on, confused and nearly in unconsciousness. A revolution had taken place within me. Until [p. 60] that sentence of death I had felt myself breathe, palpitate, exist, like other beings. Now I felt clearly that a barrier existed between me and the world. Nothing appeared to me under the same aspect as hitherto. Those large and luminous windows, that fair sunshine, that pure sky,--all was pale and ghastly, the color of a winding sheet. Those men, women and children, who pressed on my path, seemed to me like phantoms.
At the foot of the stairs, a black and dirty prison-cart was waiting: as I entered it, I happened to look around. "A condemned man!" shouted the people, running towards the cart. Through the cloud which seemed to me to interpose between me and all things, I distinguished two young girls who gazed at me with eager eyes. "Good!" said the youngest, clapping her hands. "It will take place in six weeks!"
[P. 61] III.
Condemned to death!
Well, why not? All mankind, I remember once reading, are condemned to death, with indefinite respites. How then is my position altered?
Since the hour when my sentence was pronounced, how many are dead who calculated upon a long life! How many are gone before me, who, young, free, and in good health, had fully intended to be present when my head fell in the Place de Grève. How many, between this and then, perhaps, who now walk and breathe in the fresh air anywhere they please, will die before me!
And then, what has life for me, that I should regret? In truth, only the dull twilight and black bread of a prison, a portion of watery soup from the trough of the convicts; to be treated rudely, I, who have been refined by education, to be brutalized by turnkeys without feeling; not to see a human being who thinks me worthy of a word, or whom I could address: incessantly to [p. 62] shudder at what I have done, and what may be done to me: these are nearly the only advantages of which the executioner can deprive me.
Ah! nevertheless, it is horrible!
[P. 63] IV.
The black cart brought me here, to this hideous Bicêtre.
Seen from afar, the appearance of that edifice is rather majestic. It spreads to the horizon in front of a hill; and at a distance retains something of its ancient look of a royal château. But as you approach it, the palace changes to a ruin; and the dilapidated gables shock the sight. There is a mixture of poverty and royal faces: without glass or shutters to the windows, but massive crossed-bars of iron instead; against which are pressed, here and there, the ghastly face, of felon, or madmen!
It is life seen close at hand.
[P. 64] V.
I had no sooner arrived here. than the hand of force was laid on me, and numerous precautions were taken: neither knife nor fork was allowed for my repasts; and thc camisole de force (strait-jacket), a species of sack made of sail-cloth, imprisoned my arms. They were answerable for my life, so the jailers would have for six or seven weeks their responsibilities; as it was requisite to keep me safe and in good condition for the Place de Grève.
For the first few days.I was treated with a degree of attention which wan horrible to me; the civilities of a turnkey savor of a scaffold. Luckily, atthe end of some days, habit resumed its influence; they mixed me with the other prisoners in a general brutality, and made no more of those unusual distinctions of politeness which continually kept the executioner in my memory. This was not the only amelioration. My youth, my docility, the cares of the chaplain of the prison, and above all some words in Latin which I addressed to the keeper, who did not understand them, procured for me a walk once a [p. 65] week with the other prisoners, and removed the strait-jacket with which I was paralyzed. After considerable hesitation, they have also given me pens, paper, ink, and a night-lamp.
Every Sunday after mass, I am allowed to walk in the prison-court at the hour of recreation: there I talk with the prisoners, which is inevitable. They are good fellows, these wretches; they tell me their adventures, enough to horrify one; but I know they are proud of them.
They taught me their argot, à rouscailler bigorne, as they called it. A hideous abortion of the language. On hearing it spoken, the effect is like the shaking of dusty rags before one.
These men at least pity me; and they alone do so. The jailers, the turnkeys--and I wish them no harm--gossip and latigh, and speak of me in my presence, as though I were a thing.
[P. 66] VI.
I said to myself:
As I have the means of writing, why should I not do it? But of what shall I write? placed between four walls of cold and bare stone, without freedom for my steps, without horizon for my eyes, my sole occupation to watch mechanically the progress of that square of light which the grating of my door marks on the sombre wall opposite, and, as I said before, ever alone with one idea, an idea of crime, punishment, death! Can I have anything to say, I who have no more to do in this world? And what shall I find in this dry and empty brain which is worthy the trouble of being written?
Why not? If all around me is monotonous and colorless, is there not within me a tempest, a struggle, a tragedy? This fixed idea which possesses me, does it not take every hour, every instant a new form, becoming more hideous as the time approaches? Why should I not try to describe for myself all the violent and unknown feelings I experience in my outcast situation? Certainly the [p. 67] material is plentiful; and, however shortened my life may be, there will still be sufficient in the anguish, the terrors, the tortures, which will fill it from this hour until my last, to exhaust my pen and ink! Besides, the only means to decrease my suffering in this anguish will be to observe it closely; and to describe it will give me an occupation.
And then what I write may not be without its use. This journal of my sufferings, hour by hour, minute by minute, torment after torment, if I have strength to carry it on to the moment when it will be physically impossible for me to continue--this history necessarily unfinished, yet as complete as possible, of my sensations, may it not give a grand and deep lesson? will not there be in this process of agonizing thought, in this ever increasing progress of pain, in this intellectual dissection of a condemned man, more than one lesson for those who condemned? Perhaps the perusal may render them less heedless, when throwing a human life into what they call "the scale of justice?" Perhaps they have never reflected on the slow succession of tortures conveyed in the expeditious formula of a sentence of death! Have they ever paused on the important idea, that, in the man whose days they shorten, there is an immortal spirit which had calculated on life, [p. 68] a soul which is not prepared for death? No! they see nothing but the execution; and doubtless think that, for the condemned, there is nothing anterior or subsequent!
These sheets shall undeceive them. Published, perhaps, some day, they will call their attention a few moments to the suffering of the mind, for it is this which they do not consider. They triumph in the power of being able to destroy the body, almost without making it suffer. What an inferior consideration is this! What is mere physical pain, compared to that of the mind? A day will come--and perhaps these memoirs, the last revelations of a solitary wretch, will have contributed...
Unless after my death the wind carries away these sheets of paper into the muddy court; or unless they melt with rain when pasted to the broken windows of a jailer.
[P. 69] VII.
Suppose that what I write might one day be useful to others--might make the judge pause in his decision, and might save the wretched, innocent or guilty, from the agony to which I am condemned--why should I do it? What matters it? When my life has been taken, what will it be to me if they take the lives of others? Have I really thought of such folly? To throw down the scaffold which I had fatally mounted!
What! sunshine, spring-time, fields full of flowers and birds, the clouds, trees, nature, liberty, life, these are to be mine no more!
Ah! it is myself I must try to save! Is it really true that this cannot be, that I must die soon, to-morrow, to-day perhaps; is it all thus? Oh, God! a dreadful idea of dashing my head against the prison wall!
[P. 70] VIII.
Let us consider what time remains to me.
Three days of delay, after sentence is pronounced, for the prisoner's final plea to annul it.
Forgotten for a week in the court of assizes, after which the pieces , as they are called, are sent to the minister.
Forgotten for a fortnight at the minister's, who does not even know that
there are such papers,
although he is supposed to transmit after examination, to the Cour de Cassation.
Then classification, numbering, registering; the guillotine-list is loaded, and none must go before their turn!
A fortnight more waiting to see that no injustice is done.
At last the court assembles, usually on Tuesday, rejects twenty pleas together, and sends all back to the minister, who sends them back to the attorney-general, who sends them back to the executioner. Three more days.
On the morning of the fourth day, the deputy of the attorney-general says to himself [p. 71] as he arranges his cravat: "This business certainly must be finished;" then if the recorder's deputy has no breakfast with friends which prevents him, the order of the execution is drafted, revised, engrossed, and sent out; and the following morning, from day-break, the noise of erecting the scaffold, in the Place de Grève is heard, and in the cross-streets a commotion of hoarse voices.
Altogether six weeks. The young girl's calculation was right! Thus I have now been at least five weeks, perhaps six, for I dare not reckon I in this cell at Bicêtre: nay, I think I have been even three days more!
[P. 72] IX.
I have just made my will.
What was the use of this? I have to pay my expenses; and all I possess will scarcely suffice. The guillotine is expensive.
I leave a mother, I leave a wife, I leave a child.
A little girl three years old, gentle, delicate, with large black eyes, and Chestnut hair.
She was two years and one month old when I saw her the last time.
Thus, after my death, there will be three women without son, without husband, without father; three orphans in different degrees; three widows by act of law.
I admit that I am justly punished; but these innocent creatures, what have they done? No matter; they are dishonored, they are ruined; and this is justice.
It is not so much on account of my poor old mother, that I feel thus wretched; she is so advanced in years, she will not survive the blow; or if she still linger a short time, her feelings are so blunted, that she will suffer but little.
[P. 73] Nor is it for my wife that I feel the most; she is already in miserable health, and weak in mind.
Her reason will give way, in which case her spirit will not suffer while the mind slumber as in death.
But my daughter, my child, my poor little Marie, who is laughing, playing, singing at this moment, and who dreams of no evil! Ah! it is the thought of her which unmans me!
[P. 74] X.
Here is a description of my prison.
Eight feet square; four walls of granite, with a flagged pavement.
To the right of the door is a kind of nook by way of alcove, in which is thrown a bundle of straw, where the prisoner is supposed to rest and sleep, dressed, winter, as in summer, in slight linen clothing.
Over my head, instead of a ceiling, is a black ogive vault, and instead of curtains, a thick canopy of cobwebs, hanging like tattered pennons.
For the rest, no windows, not even a ventllator; and only one door, where iron hides the wood.
I mistake; towards the top of the door there is a sort of window, or rather an opening of nine inches square, crossed by a grating, and which the turnkey can close at night.
Outside there is a long corridor lighted and sired by means of narrow ventilators high in the wall. It is divided into compartments of masonry, which communicate by a series of doors; each of these compartments serves as [p. 75] an ante-chamber to a dungeon, like mine; in these dungeons are confined felons condemned by the governor of the prison to hard labor. The first three cells are kept for prisoners under sentence of death, as being nearest to the jail, therefore most convenient for the jailer.
These dungeons are the only remains of the ancient château of Bicêtre, such as it was built in the fifteenth century by the Cardinal of Winchester, he who caused Jeanne of Arc to be burned. I overheard this description from some sightseers who came to my den, yesterday, and who stared at me from a distance, as at a wild beast in a menagerie. The turnkey had had five sous.
I have omitted to say, that, night and day there is a sentry on guard outside the door of my cell; and I never raised ny eyes towards the square grating, without encountering his eyes, open, and fixed on me.
For the rest, we may suppose that there is air and daylight in this box of stone.
[P. 76] XI.
As there is yet no appearance of daylight, what could be done during the night? An idea just occurred to me. I would arise and examine, by my lamp, the walls of my cell. They are covered with writings, with drawings, fantastic figures, and names which mix with and efface each other. It would appear that each prisoner had wished to leave behind him some trace here at least. Pencil, chalk, charcoal--black, white, gray letters. Sometimes deep carvings upon the stone, if my mind were at ease, I could take an interest in this strange book, which is developed, page by page, to my eyes, on each stone of this dungeon. I should like to recompose these fragments of thought; to trace a character for each name; to give sense and life to these mutilated inscriptions, to these dismembered phrases.
Above my pillow there are two flaming hearts, pierced with an arrow; and beneath is written: Amour pour la vie. Poor wretch! it was not a long engagement!
[P. 77] Beside this, a three-sided cocked hat, with a small figure coarsely done beneath, and the words: Vive l' Empereur! 1824.
More flaming hearts, with this inscription, characteristic in a prison: I love and adore Mathieu Danvin. JAQUES.
On the opposite wall is the name of Papavoine. The P is worked in arabesques and embellished with care.
A couplet of an obscene song.
A cap of liberty, cut rather deeply into the stone, with the words Bories, La Republique! beneath. He was one of the four subaltern officers of la Rochelle. Poor young man! How horrible is the idea of their fancied political necessity, to give the frightful reality of the guillotine for an opinion, a reverie, an abstraction! And I! I have complained of its severity! I who have really committed crime, who have spilled blood!
I can go no farther in my research! I have just discovered, drawn with chalk in the corner of the wall, that dreadful image, the representation of that scaffold, which even at this moment is perhaps being put up for my execution! The lamp had nearly fallen out of my hands!
[P. 78] XII.
I returned precipitately to sit on my straw-bed; my head sunk on my knees. Then my childish fear was dissipated, and a wild curiosity forced me to continue the examination of my walls.
Beside the name of Papavoine, I tore away an enormous cobweb, thick with dust, and filling the angle of the wall. Under this web, there were four or five names perfectly legible, among others of which nothing remained but a smear on the wall--DAUTIN, 1815.--POULAN, 1818.--JEAN MARTIN, 1821.--CASTAING, 1823. I have read these names, and frightful recollections crowded on me. Dautan was the man who cut his brother in quarters, and who went at night to Paris and threw the head into a fountain, and the body into a sewer. Poulain assassinated his wife. Jean Martin shot his father with a pistol as the old man opened a window: and Castaing was the physician who poisoned his friend; and, while attending the illness he had caused, instead of an antidote, gave him more poison. Then, next to these names, was Papavoine, [p. 79] the horrible madman who killed children by blows upon the head with a knife.
These, said I, as a shudder passed over me, these, then, have been my predecessors in this cell. Here, on the same pavement where I am, they conceived their last thoughts, these fearful homicides! Within these walls, in this narrow square, their last steps have turned like those of a caged wild beast. They succeeded each other at short intervals; it seems that this dungeon does not remain empty. They have left the place warm, and it is to me they have left it. In my turn I shall join them in the felons' cemetery of Clamart, where the grass grows so well!
I am neither visionary nor superstitious: but it is probable these ideas caused in my brain a feverish excitement: for, whilst I thus wandered, all at once these five fatal names appeared as though written in flames on the dark wall; noises, louder and louder, burst on my ears: a dull, red light, filled my eyes, and it seemed to me that my cell became full of men--strangers to me; each bore his severed head in his left hand; and carried it by the mouth, for the hair had been removed: each raised his right hand at me, except the parricide.(2)
I shut my eyes in horror: and then I saw all, even more distinctly!
[P. 80] Dream, vision or reality, I should have gone mad, if a sudden impression had not recalled me in time. I was near fainting, when I felt something cold crawling over my naked foot. It was the bloated Spider, whom I had disturbed.
This recalled my wandering senses. Those dreadful spectres, then, were only the fumes of an empty and convulsed brain. Chimera like Macbeth's! The dead are dead, these men certainly, They are safely jailed in the grave. The sepulchre is a prison from whence none escape. The door of the tomb opens not from within.
[P. 81] XIII.
I have lately witnessed a hideous sight.
As soon as it was day, the prison was full of noise. I heard heavy doors open and shut; the grating of locks and bolts; the clanking of bunches of keys; the stairs creaking from top to bottom with quick steps; and voices calling and answering from the opposite extremes of the long corridors. My neighbors tn the dungeons, the felons at hard labor, were more gay than usual. All Bicêtre seemed laughing, singing, running or dancing. I, alone silent in this uproar, alone motionless in this tumult, astonished and attentive I listened.
A jailer passed.
I ventured to call and ask him "if there were a fête in the prison?"
"A fête, if you choose to call it so," answered he; "this is the day that they fetter the galley-slaves, who are to set off to-morrow for Toulon. Would you like to see them? It would amuse you."
For a solitary recluse, indeed, a spectacle of any kind was an event of interest, however odious it might be; and I accepted the amusement.
[P. 82] The jailer, after taking the usual precautions to secure me, conducted me into a little empty cell, without a vestige of furniture; and only a grated window,--but still a real window,--against which one could lean, and through which one could actually perceive the sky.
"Here," said he, "you will see and hear ali that happens. You will be alone in your box, like the king!"
He then went out, closing on me locks, bolts and bars.
The window looked into a square and rather wide court, on every side of which was a large six-storied stone edifice. Nothing could seem more wretched, naked and miserable to the eye, than this quadruple façade, pierced by a multitude of grated windows, against which were pressed a crowd of thin and wan faces, placed one above the other, like the stones of a wall; and all as it were, framed in the inter-crossings of iron bars. They were prisoners, spectators of the ceremony, until their turn came to be the actors. One might have called them spirits in agony of purgatory looking into hell.
All looked in silence into the still empty court. Among these faded and dull countenances there shone, here and there, some eyes which gleamed like sparks of fire.
[P. 83] The block of prisons that surround the court was not complete. One of the fronts, that facing me, was cut about the middle, and was joined together by an iron grating. This grating-opened, upon a second court smaller than the first, and, like, surrounded by black walls.
All around the principal court were stone benches. In the centre rose an iron post, intended to support a lantern.
At twelve o'clock, a large gateway in the court was opened. A cart, escorted by soldiers, rolled heavily into the court, with a rattling of irons. It was the convict-guard with the chains.
At the same instant, as if this sound awaked all the noise of the prison, the spectators of the windows, who had hitherto been silent and motionless, burst forth into cries of joy, songs, menaces, and imprecations, mixed with hoarse laughter. It was like witnessing a masque of demons; each visage bore a grimace, every hand was thrust through the bars, their voices yelled, their eyes flashed, and I was startled to see so many gleams amidst these ashes.
Meanwhile the galley warders quietly began their work. One mounted on the cart, and threw to his comrades the fetters, the iron collars, and the linen clothing; while others [p. 84] stretched long chains to the end of the court, and the captain tried each link, by striking it on the pavement; all of which took place under the mocking raillery of the prisoners, and the loud laughter of the convicts for whom they were being prepared.
When all was ready, a fellow in silver braid, who was called Monsieur l' Inspecteur, gave an order to the superintendent of the prison, and two or three low doors poured forth into the court a collection of hideous, yelling, ragged men; these were the galley convicts.
Their entry caused increased pleasure at the windows. Some of them, being well known in the galleys, were saluted with applause and acclamation, which they received with a sort of proud modesty. Several wore a kind of hat of prison straw, plaited by themselves, and formed into some fantastic shape; these men were always the most applauded. One in particular excited transports of enthusiasm; a youth of seventeen, with quite a girlish face. He had just come out of his cell where he had been a week in solitary confinement. From his straw bedding he had made himself a dress, which enveloped him from head to foot; and he entered the court, jumping a somersault with the agility of a serpent. He was a mountebank condemned for theft, and there was a furious [p. 85] clapping of hands and a volley of cheers for him. The galley convicts responded, and there was something frightful in this exchange of compliments between those who were galley convicts and those who hoped to be.
As they arrived they were pushed between two rows of guards into the little grated courts where they awaited the visit of the doctors. It was there that all tried a last effort to avoid the journey, alleging some excuse of ill-health, sore eyes, lame leg, mutilated hand. But they are almost always found good for the galleys, and then each carelessly resigns himself to his fate, forgetting in a few minutes all his pretended infirmity.
At length, the little grating opens. A warden calls the names in alphabetical order, and they went to stand two and two, companions by similar initials; so that even if a convict had a friend, most likely their chains would divide them from suffering together! Worst of miseries!
When at least thirty have come out they close the grating. A warder drives them in line with his baton and throws in front of each a shirt, jacket and pantaloons of coarse canvas, then makes a sign and all commence to undress. An unexpected incident happens to turn this humiliation into torture.
[P. 86] Up to now the day had been fine enough, and, if the October breeze was rather cool, occasionally the clouds broke and allowed the sun to shine. But no sooner were the convicts undressed and at the moment when they stood naked, awaiting the inspection of the warders, a cold autumn shower suddenly fell in torrents on the uncovered heads and naked bodies of the convicts and on their miserable clothes upon the pavement.
In the twinkling of an eye the court was deserted by all except the warders and the convicts. The sightseers sought shelter under the door-ways.
Meanwhile the rain fell in sheets, a dull silence succeeded the noisy bravadoes; they shivered, their teeth chattered, and their limbs shook in the wet clothes.
One convict only, an old man, retained a sort of gayety: he exclaimed laughing, While wiping himself with his coarse shirt, "This was not in the play-bill!" and shook his fist at the skies.
When they had put on their traveling suits, they were taken in bands of twenty or thirty to the corner of the court where the long chains were extended. At every interval of two feet in these long chains were fastened short transverse chains, and at the extremity of each of the latter was attached a square [p. 87] iron collar, which opened by meansof a hinge in the centre and closed by an iron bolt, which is riveted for the whole journey, on the convict's neck.
The convicts were ordered to sit down in the mud on the inundated pavement; the iron collars were fitted on them, and two prison-blacksmiths, with portable anvils, riveted the hard, unheated metal, with heavy iron hammers. This was a frightful operation, and even the.most hardy turned Pale! Each stroke of the hammer, aimed on the anvil resting on their backs, makes the whole form yield: the failure of aim, or the least movement and the skull would be Crushed like a walnut-shell.
After this operation they became sombre. Nothing was heard. buts the rattle of hains and at intervals a heavy blow from a warden's baton and a cry from one of the unruly. There were some who cried; the old shuddered and bit their lips. I look with terror at all these sinister profiles in their iron frames.
Thus, after the visit of the doctors, was the visit of the warders, and after the warders, that of the blacksmiths. Three acts of this spectacle.
A ray from the sun appeared. It seemed to set fire to their brains. The convicts rose [p. 88] simultaneously. The five gangs joined hands, so as to form an immense circle, and thus ran round and round in the court, with a rapidity that the eye could hardly follow. They sung some couplets, in. their own idiom, to a melody which was sometimes plaintive, sometimes furious, often interrupted by hoarse cries and broken laughter, like delirious ravings: while the chains, clanking together in cadence, formed an accompaniment to a song more harsh than their own noise.
A large trough was now brought in: the guards striking the convicts to make them discontinue their dance, took them to the trough in which was swimming I know not what sort of herbs in some smoking-and dirty-looking liquid. They were to eat it.
Then, having partaken of it, they threw.the remainder on the pavement, with their black bread, and began again to dance and sing. This is a liberty which is allowed them on the day they are fettered and the succeeding night.
I gazed on this strange spectacle with such eager and breathless attention, that I totally forgot my own misery. The deepest pity filled :my heart, and their laughter made me weep.
Suddenly, in the midst of a profound reverie into which I had fallen, I observed the yelling circle had stopped, and was silent. [P. 89] Then every eye was turned to the window which I occupied. "The Condemned! the Condemned!" Shouted they, pointing their fingers at me; and their bursts of laughter were redoubled.
I was thunderstruck.
I know not where they knew me, or how I was recognized.
"Good-day! good-night!" cried they, with their mocking sneer. One of the youngest, condemned to the galleys for life, turned his shining, leaden face on me, with a look of envy, saying, "He is lucky! he is to be clipped! Good-bye, comrade!"
I cannot describe what passed within me. I was indeed their "comrade!" The Grève is sister to Toulon. Nay, I was even lower than they were; the convicts had done me an honor. I shuddered.
Yes! their "comrade!" and a few days later, I would be a spectacle for them.
I remained at the window, motionless, as if paralyzed: but when I saw the five gangs advance, rushing toward me with phrases of disgusting cordiality, when I heard the horrible din of their chains, their clamors, their steps at the foot of my wall, it seemed to me that this knot of demons were scaling my cell! I uttered a shriek; I threw myself against the door violently; but there was no means of [p. 90] flight. I knocked, I called with mad fury. Then I thought I heard, still nearer, the horrid voices of the convicts. I thought I saw their hideous heads, appearing on a level with the window; I uttered another shriek of anguish, and fainted.
[P. 91] XIV
When my consciousness Returned, it was night: I was lying on a pallet; a lamp swung from the ceiling, enabled me line of beds similar to mine, and I judged that I had been taken to the infirmary.
I remaimed a few, moments awake, but without thought or recollection, totally engrossed by the happiness of being again in a bed. Certainly, in former days, this prison-hospital bed would have made me shrink with disgust; but I am no longer the same individual. The sheets were brown, and coarse to the touch; the blanket thiniland ragged; and there was but one straw mattress. No matter! I could stretch my limbs at their ease, between these coarse sheets; and under this blanket, thin as it was, I felt the gradual decrease of horrible chill in the marrow of my bones to which I. had lately been accustomed.--I slept again.
A loud noise awakened me, at daylight; the noise came from without; my bed was beside the window, and I sat up to see from what it arose.
[P. 92] The window looked into the large court of the Bicêtre, which was full of people. Two lines of veterans had difficulty in keeping the crowd away from a narrow passage across the court. Between this double rank of soldiers, five long wagons, loaded with men, were driven slowly, jolting at each stone; it was the departure of the convicts.
These wagons were open, and each gang occupied one. The convicts, in consequence of their iron collars being attached to the centre chain, are obliged to sit back to back, their feet hanging over the sides of the wagon; the centre chain stretched the whole length of the cart, and on its unfastened end, the warder stood with his loaded musket. There was a continual clanking of the prisoners' chains, and at each plunge of the wagon their heads and pendent limbs were jolted violently.
A fine penetrating rain chilled the air, and made their wet pantaloons cling to their shivering knees. Their long beards and short hair streamed with wet; their complexions were saturnine; they were shivering, and grinding their teeth with mingled rage and cold! But they had no power of moving: once riveted to that chain, each becomes a mere fraction of that hideous whole which is called the cordon (literally string, freely the gang). Intellect must abdicate, the fetters [p. 93] condemn it to death, and the mere animal must not even hunger but at certain hours. Thus fixed, the greater part half clad, with bare heads, and no rest for their feet, they begin their journey of twenty-five days; the same sort of wagons, the same portion of dress being used in scorching July as in the cold rains of November. One might say that man wished Heaven to take a part of Office of executioner.
Between the crowd and the convicts, a horrible dialogue was maintained: abuse on one side, bravadoes on the other, imprecations from both; but at a sign from the captain, I saw the sticks of the guard, raining incuscriminate blows into the wagon, on heads or shoulders; and all returned to that kind of external calm which is called order. But their eyes were full of vengeance; and their powerless hands were clenched on their knees.
The five wagons, escorted by mounted gendarmes and guards on foot, passed slowly under the high arched door of Bicêtre. A sixth followed them, in which were heaped pell-mell the cooking stoves, the copper pots and the extra chains. Some of the warders who had been delayed in the canteen came running out to join their squad. The crowd followed them: all vanished like a phantasmagoria, and by degrees the sounds of the heavy [p. 94] wheels on the Fontainebleau road diminshed, clanking fetters, and the yells of the multitude uttering maledictions on the journey of the convicts.
And that was their beginning!