“Well, Dega, how’s it going?”
“O.K., Papi. I got fifteen years. What about you? I heard they really screwed you.”
“Yes. I got life.”
“Are you going to appeal?”
“No. I’m going to eat and keep in shape. You’ve got to be strong, Dega. Someday we’re going to need strong muscles. Got any money?”
“Yes. Ten thousand francs in pounds sterling.* What about you?”
“Not a sou.”
“Want a piece of advice? Get some and get it fast. Hubert’s your lawyer? He’s a bastard, he’ll never lift a finger. Send your wife to Dante with a loaded plan. Tell her to give it to Dominique-le-Riche and I guarantee you’ll get it.”
“Ssh. The guard’s looking at us.”
“So you’re having a little chat?”
“Oh, nothing interesting,” Dega answered. “He says he’s feeling sick.”
“What’s he got? Courtroom indigestion?” The slob burst out laughing.
So this was it. I was on the road of the condemned already. A man makes jokes and laughs like crazy at the expense of a kid of twenty-five who’s in for life.
I got my plan. It was a highly polished aluminum tube, that unscrewed right in the middle. It had a male half and a female half. It contained 5600 francs in new bills. When I got it, I kissed it. Yes, I kissed that little tube, two and a half inches long and as thick as your thumb, before shoving it into my anus. I took a deep breath so that it would lodge in the colon. It was my strongbox. They could make me take off all my clothes, spread my legs apart, make me cough or bend over double, for all the good it would do them. The plan was high up in the large intestine. It was a part of me. Inside me I carried my life, my freedom … my road to revenge. For that’s what was on my mind. Revenge. That’s all that was, in fact.
It was dark outside. I was alone in my cell. A bright light shone from the ceiling so that the guard could see me through a little hole in the door. The powerful light blinded me. I placed a folded handkerchief over my sore eyes. I stretched out on the mattress on my iron bed and, lying there without a pillow, went over and over the details of that terrible trial.
To make you understand this long story as it unfolds and what sustained me in my struggle, I may have to be a little long-winded just now. I must tell you everything that happened and what I saw in my mind’s eye during those first days after I was buried alive.
What would I do after I escaped? For now that I had my plan I never doubted for a moment that I would.
Well, I’d make it back to Paris as fast as possible. And the first man I’d kill would be that stool pigeon, Polein. Then the two informers. But two informers weren’t enough, I had to kill all informers. Or at least as many as possible. I’d fill a trunk with all the explosives it would hold. I didn’t know exactly how much that would be: twenty, thirty, forty pounds? I tried to figure what I’d need for lots of victims.
I kept my eyes closed, the handkerchief over them for protection, and I could see the trunk very clearly, looking very innocent but crammed with explosives, the trigger carefully primed to set them off. Wait a minute … It must explode at exactly ten in the morning, in the dispatch room on the second floor at Police Headquarters, 36 Quai des Orfèvres. At that hour there would be at least one hundred and fifty cops in the room, receiving their orders for the day and listening to reports. How many steps were there to climb? I had to get it right.
But would they obey? What if it was my luck that, out of all those idiots, I picked the only two intelligent men in the force? Then I’d be finished. I must think of something else. And I thought and thought. I would not admit that nothing would ever be 100 percent sure.
I got up for a drink of water. So much thinking had given me a headache.
I lay down again without the blindfold. The minutes dragged. And that light, that goddamned light! I wet the handkerchief and put it back on. The cold water felt good and its weight made the cloth stick to my eyes. From then on I always did this.
The long hours I spent piecing together my future revenge were so intense that I began to feel as if the project were already under way. Every night, and even parts of the day, I wandered through Paris as if my escape were already a fact: I would escape and I would return to Paris. And, naturally, I’d present my bill to Polein first, then to the informers. But what about the jury? Were those bastards to go on leading peaceful lives? Those old crocks must have gone home, smug and satisfied at having done their duty with a capital D—full of importance, puffed up with pride in front of their neighbors, and the wives waiting, hair uncombed, to guzzle soup with them.
All right now. What should I do with the jury? Nothing—that was the answer. They were a pitiful bunch, really not responsible. I’d leave them alone.
As I write down these thoughts I had so many years ago, thoughts that come back now to assail me with such terrible clarity, I am struck by how absolute silence and total isolation were able to lead a young man shut up in a cell into a true life of the imagination. He literally lived two lives. He took flight and wandered wherever he liked: to his home, his father, his mother, his family, his childhood, all the different stages of his life. And more important still, the castles in Spain that his fertile brain invented induced a kind of schizophrenia, and he began to believe he was living what he dreamed.
Thirty-six years have passed and yet it taxes my memory scarcely at all to write what I actually thought at that point in my life.
No, I wouldn’t harm the jurors. But what about the prosecutor? Ah, I wouldn’t botch that one! Moreover, thanks to Alexandre Dumas, I had just the right recipe. I’d do exactly as they did in The Count of Monte Cristo with that poor bugger they put in the cellar and left to die of hunger.
Oh, that vulture decked out in red—he’d done everything to deserve the most horrible possible end. Yes, that was it. After Polein and the police, I’d concentrate exclusively on him. I’d rent a villa, one with a very deep cellar and thick walls and a very heavy door. If the door wasn’t thick enough, I’d pad it myself with a mattress and cotton batting. Once I had the villa, I’d find Master Pradel and kidnap him. I’d chain him to the rings in the wall as soon as we arrived. Then my turn would begin....
I am face to face with him; I see him with extraordinary clarity beneath my closed eyelids. I look at him the same way he looked at me in court. I feel the warmth of his breath on my face.
The powerful spotlight I’ve aimed at him blinds his vulture’s eyes; they are wild with terror. Huge drops of sweat run down his apopleptic face. Yes, I hear my questions; I listen to his replies. I live the moment intensely.
“You miserable clod, do you recognize me? It’s me, Papillon. Papillon you so blithely consigned to hard labor for life. Do you think now it was worth all those plodding years to educate yourself, spending all those nights on Roman codes, learning Greek and Latin, sacrificing your youth? To get you where, you bastard? Where you could create a better social code? Convince the mob that peace is the most important thing in the world? Preach a saving new religion? Or simply influence others to become better men, or at least stop being bad? Tell me, did you use your knowledge to save men?
“You did none of that. Only one ambition moved you. To climb, climb. Climb the ladder of your wretched career. To you, glory was being the best caterer to the bagne, the most generous provider to the hangman and the guillotine.
“If Deibler* felt a shred of gratitude, he would send you a case of the best champagne at the end of each year. Isn’t it thanks to you, you pig, that he
was able to cut off five or six extra heads this year? In any event, I’ve got you now, chained tight to this wall.
“How well I remember your smile when you heard the verdict, your look of triumph! Well now, my friend, I’m going to change all that. You have one advantage I didn’t have, of course. I couldn’t scream; you can. So go ahead. Scream, scream as much as you like, as loud as you like. What am I going to do with you? Let you starve to death? No, not good enough. First, I’ll gouge out your eyes. No, that comes later. First I’ll cut out your tongue, that terrible tongue, as sharp as a knife—no, sharper than a knife, more like a razor. That tongue you prostituted to your glorious career!”
I walked and I walked, my head spun, but I stayed face to face with him … until all of a sudden the lamp went out and the pale light of day crept into my cell through the bars of the window.
How come? Was it morning already? Did I spend the whole night avenging myself? What beautiful hours those were! How fast it went, this long, long night!
I listened as I sat on my bed. Nothing. Absolute silence. From time to time, a small “tic” on my door. It was the guard in noiseless slippers raising the small iron slide so that he could fasten his eye to the tiny hole and watch me without my seeing him.
The machinery conceived by the French Republic was now in its second phase. It functioned wonderfully well; the first phase had eliminated a troublesome man. But that wasn’t enough. The man must neither die too quickly, nor must he escape by committing suicide. They needed him. What would the Penal Administration do if there were no prisoners? So he must be watched, and he must go to the bagne in order to justify the lives of other bureaucrats.
Hearing the “tic” again, I had to smile. Relax, I told them silently, you’re wasting your time. I won’t escape you. At least, not the way you fear—by suicide. I ask only one thing: that I stay as healthy as possible and leave soon for French Guiana.
Heh, my old prison guard who makes that “tic” all the time, I know your colleagues are no choir boys. You’re a kind papa compared to them. I’ve known this a long time, because when Napoleon III created the bagnes and was asked: “But who will guard these bandits?” he answered: “Worse bandits.” Later on, I was able to confirm the fact that the founding father of the bagnes had not been lying.
Clack, clack, a wicket eight inches square opened in the middle of my door. I was handed coffee and a piece of bread weighing almost two pounds. As a convict, I no longer had the right to eat in the restaurant, but so long as I had money, I could buy cigarettes and a little food at the modest canteen. A few days more and I’d have nothing. The Conciergerie was the waiting room for solitary confinement. I smoked a Lucky Strike with delight, six francs sixty the pack. I bought two. I was spending my odd change because they’d be taking it all anyway to pay the costs of “justice.”
I found a small note slipped inside the bread. It was from Dega, instructing me to go to the delousing room. “You’ll find three lice in the matchbox.” I took out the matches and there they were, three fat and healthy lice. I knew what I was to do. I must show them to the guard and tomorrow he’d send me and all my belongings, including my mattress, to the steam room to kill all the parasites—except me, of course. And so the next day I met Dega there. No guards. We were alone.
“Thanks, Dega. Thanks to you I got my plan.”
“Does it bother you?”
“When you go to the toilet, wash it well before you put it back.”
“Right. I think it’s good and tight because the bills are still in perfect condition. And I’ve been carrying it for seven days.”
“I’m glad it’s working.”
“What are you planning to do, Dega?”
“I’m going to play crazy. I don’t want to go to the bagne. Here in France I’ll do maybe eight or ten years. I have connections and might get five years off.”
“How old are you?”
“You are crazy! If you lose ten or fifteen years, you’ll be an old man when you get out. Does hard labor scare you?”
“Yes, and I’m not ashamed to say I’m scared of the bagne. It’s terrible in Guiana, you know. Every year they lose eighty percent of the men. Each convoy replaces another and the convoys carry between eighteen hundred and two thousand men. If you don’t catch leprosy, you get yellow fever, or dysentery, which can finish you off, or tuberculosis, or malaria. If you escape these, you stand a good chance of being assassinated for your plan or dying in a break. Believe me, Papillon, I’m not saying this to discourage you, but I know what I’m talking about. I’ve known several cons who returned to France after even short terms—five to seven years. They were human dregs. They spent nine months of the year in the hospital. As for escaping, it’s not as easy as you think.”
“I believe you, Dega, but I have confidence in myself, and I’m not going to hang around there, that’s for sure. I’m a good sailor, I know the sea, and I’m going to waste no time making a break. Can you see yourself doing ten years in solitary? Even if they take away five—and there’s no guarantee they will—do you think you can stand complete isolation without going nuts? Look at me now, alone in my cell twenty-four hours a day, with no books, no way to get out, nobody to speak to. Those hours aren’t sixty minutes long, but six hundred. And that’s not the whole story either.”
“Maybe so, but you’re young and I’m forty-two.”
“Listen, Dega, what are you really afraid of? Is it the other cons?”
“If you want the truth, Papi, yes. Everybody knows I was a millionaire. And from there to killing me because they think I’m carrying fifty or a hundred thousand francs around isn’t a very long step.”
“Listen, do you want to make a deal? Promise me you won’t go to the nut house, and I promise I’ll always stick by you. We’ll help each other out. I’m strong and quick, I learned to fight early, and I’m good with a knife. So don’t worry. The other cons won’t just respect us; they’ll be afraid of us. For a cavale, we need nobody. You’ve got dough, I’ve got dough. I know how to use a compass and sail a boat. What more do you want?”
He looked me straight in the eye.... We embraced. The pact was sealed.
A few moments later the door opened. He went his way and I went mine. Our cells weren’t very far apart, and we could see each other from time to time in the barbershop, at the doctor’s, or at chapel on Sundays.
Dega had been caught in the scandal of the counterfeit National Defense bonds. A forger had made them in a very original way. He bleached five-hundred-franc bonds and reprinted them with the number 10,000. It was a beautiful job. Since the paper was the same, the banks accepted them without question. This had been going on for some years, and the Treasury had just about given up when one day they caught a man named Brioulet red-handed. Louis Dega was quietly minding his bar in Marseilles, where the flower of the Midi underworld gathered every night along with the world’s biggest traveling crooks.
By 1929 he was already a millionaire. One night a pretty, well-dressed girl came up to the bar. She asked for Monsieur Louis Dega.
“That’s me, madame. What can I do for you? Would you step into the next room?”
“I am Brioulet’s wife. He’s in prison in Paris for selling counterfeit bonds. I saw him in the visitors’ room at the Santé. He gave me the address of your bar and told me to come and ask you for twenty thousand francs to pay the lawyer.”
So Dega, one of the biggest crooks in France, faced with the danger of a woman’s knowing his part in the affair, said the one thing he shouldn’t have said:
“Madame, I know nothing about your husband, and if it’s money you want, go walk the streets. You’ll earn more than you need for you are very pretty.”
This was too much for the poor woman; she ran out in tears. Then she went back to Paris and told her husband. Brioulet was furious. The next day he spilled everything to the examining judge and formally accused Dega of being the man who had furni
shed the counterfeit bonds. A team of France’s smartest cops went after Dega. A month later Dega, the forger, the printer and eleven accomplices were arrested at the same time in different places and put behind bars. They appeared before the Assizes of the Seine and the trial lasted fourteen days. Each prisoner was defended by a top lawyer. Brioulet never retracted. The upshot was that for twenty thousand miserable francs and an idiot remark, the biggest crook in France was ruined and stuck with fifteen years at hard labor. This was the man with whom I had just signed a life-and-death pact.
… One, two, three, four, five and turn.... One, two, three, four, five and turn. For several hours I’d been pacing back and forth between the: window and the door of my cell. I smoked, I was alert, my morale was good and I felt ready for anything. I promised myself not to think about revenge for the moment.
Let’s leave the prosecutor where I left him, chained to the rings, facing me, but with no decision yet on just how I would finish him off.
Suddenly a cry, a horrible anguished cry of despair, penetrated the door of my cell. What was it? It sounded like a man being tortured. But this was no police station. No way of finding out. They shattered me, those screams in the night. What force they must have had to penetrate my padded door! No doubt someone had gone mad. It was so easy in these cells where nothing ever happened. Out loud I asked myself, “What the hell does it matter to you? Think of yourself, only of yourself and your new partner, Dega.” I bent down, straightened up, then gave myself a sharp whack on the chest. It really hurt, so everything was all right: the muscles of my arms were in good shape. What about my legs? I should congratulate them, for I’d been walking over sixteen hours and wasn’t the least bit tired.
The Chinese invented the drop of water falling on the head. The French invented silence. They suppressed every possible distraction. No books, no paper, no pencil, the window with its thick bars completely covered with planks of wood, although a few holes let a little light through.