That harrowing cry left me deeply troubled. I charged around the cell like a beast in a cage. I felt I’d been abandoned, literally buried alive. I was really alone; nothing would ever reach me but screams.
The door opened. It was an old priest. You’re not alone after all. A priest is standing there, right in front of you.
“Good evening, my son. Forgive me for not coming sooner, but I was on holiday. How are you?” With no further ceremony, the kind old man came into my cell and sat down on my cot.
“What did you do?” he asked.
I saw how ridiculous it was to insist on my innocence, so I answered promptly, “The police say I killed a man, and if that’s what they say, it must be so.”
“Who was it?”
“And for an underworld killing, they gave you hard labor for life? I don’t understand. Was it premeditated?”
“I can’t believe it, my poor child. What can I do for you? Do you want to pray with me?”
“Father, forgive me, but I never had religious instruction. I don’t know how to pray.”
“It makes no difference, my child. I’ll pray for you. The Blessed Lord loves all his children, baptized or not. Will you please repeat each word I say?”
His eyes were so gentle and his wide face glowed with such kindness that I was ashamed to refuse him. He was kneeling; I did the same. “Our Father who art in Heaven …” Tears came into my eyes, and when the good father saw them, he put his pudgy finger to my cheek, caught a large tear, brought it to his lips and licked it.
“Your tears, my son, are the greatest reward that God could give me. Thank you.” He got up and kissed me on the forehead.
We sat down on the bed again, side by side.
“How long has it been since you last cried?”
“My mother died.”
He took my hand in his and said, “Forgive those who have made you suffer.”
I tore my hand away and, without knowing what I was doing, leaped off the bed and stood in the middle of the room. “Oh no! Not that. I’ll never forgive. You want me to tell you something, Father? I spend all day, all night, every hour, every minute, plotting how and when I’ll kill the people who sent me here.”
“That’s what you think and say now, my son. You’re young, very young. When you’re older, you’ll give up the idea of punishment and revenge.”
Thirty-four years later I agreed with him.
“What can I do for you?” the priest repeated.
“Break a rule.”
“Go to cell number thirty-seven and tell Dega to ask his lawyer to get him sent to the jail in Caen; tell him I did it today. That’s the jail where they make up the convoys for Guiana, and we must get there as fast as possible. If we miss the first boat, we have to wait two more years in solitary before there’s another. Come back here when you’ve seen him, Father.”
“What shall I use for an excuse?”
“That you forgot your breviary. I’ll be waiting for the answer.”
“Why are you in such a hurry to go to the dreadful bagne?”
I looked at this traveling salesman of the Lord and, convinced he wouldn’t give me away, I said, “So that I can escape sooner, Father.”
“God will help you, my child, I’m certain. And you will make your life over, I feel it. You have the eyes of a good boy and you have a noble soul. I’ll go to thirty-seven and bring you back the answer.”
He returned in no time. Dega had agreed.
One week later, at four in the morning, seven of us were lined up in the corridor of the Conciergerie. The guards were there in full strength.
We undressed slowly. It was cold. I had gooseflesh.
“Put your clothes in front of you. Turn around, take one step back!” We each found ourselves in front of a package.
The cotton undershirt I was wearing a moment before was replaced by a heavy stiff shirt of unbleached cloth, and my handsome suit by a jacket and pants of coarse sackcloth. My shoes vanished and I shoved my feet into a pair of sabots. Until that day we had looked like normal men. I glanced at the other six: what a horror! Our individuality was gone; in two minutes we had been transformed into convicts.
“Right turn, single file! Ready, march!”
With our escort of twenty guards we came to the courtyard, where, each in turn, we were wedged into the narrow cells of a police van. We were off to Beaulieu, the jail in Caen.
THE JAIL IN CAEN
We were led into the director’s office as soon as we arrived. He sat enthroned behind an Empire desk on a platform three feet high.
“Prisoners, this is a way station while you wait to leave for the bagne. It’s a prison. Silence is required at all times. You’ll have no visitors, no letters. Bend or you’ll break. There are two doors available to you: one, if you behave, leads to the bagne, the other to the cemetery. Bad behavior, even the smallest infraction, is punished by sixty days in the dungeon with only bread and water. No one has survived two consecutive sentences there. You’ve been warned!”
He addressed Pierrot le Fou, who had been extradited from Spain. “What was your profession?”
Infuriated by the answer, the director shouted, “Take this man away!” Immediately the toreador was knocked down, bludgeoned by four or five guards and carried out. We could hear him shout, “You shitheads! You’re five against one and you have to use clubs, you dirty bastards!” We heard then the “Ah!” of a mortally wounded beast; after that, nothing. Only the sound of something being dragged along the cement floor.
By a stroke of luck, Dega was put in the cell next to me. But first we were introduced to a one-eyed, red-headed monster at least six foot five who held a brand-new bullwhip in his right hand. He was the trusty, a prisoner who served the guards as official torturer. With him around, the guards could beat the men without exerting themselves, and if someone died in the process, they were guiltless in the eyes of the Administration.
Later on, during a short stay in the infirmary, I learned all about this human beast. The director deserved congratulations for having chosen his executioner so well. He had been a quarryman by profession. One day, in the small northern town where he lived, he had the idea of committing suicide and killing his wife at the same time. For this purpose he used a good-sized stick of dynamite. He lay down next to his sleeping wife (there were six tenants in the house), lit a cigarette and held it to the wick of the dynamite, which was in his left hand between his head and his wife’s. Ghastly explosion. Result: his wife literally had to be gathered up in spoonfuls, part of the house collapsed, three children were crushed to death under the debris, together with a woman of seventy. Others were injured in varying degrees.
As for Tribouillard, he lost part of his left hand—only his little finger and part of his thumb remained—and his left eye and ear. He also had a head wound that required surgery. But now, since his conviction, he was in charge of the jail’s disciplinary cells, a maniac free to do what he pleased with the unfortunates who ran afoul of him.
One, two, three, four, five, and turn … one, two, three, four, five, and turn.... So began again the interminable shuttle between the wall and the door of the cell.
You were not allowed to lie down during the day. At five in the morning a strident whistle woke you up. You had to get up, make your bed, wash, and either walk or sit on a stool attached to the wall. You were not allowed to lie down! Crowning refinement of the penal system: the bed folded against the wall, and there it remained. This way the prisoner couldn’t lie down and he could be watched more easily.
… One, two, three, four, five.... Fourteen hours of walking. To master the art of performing this continuous movement automat
ically, you had to learn to keep your head down, hands behind your back, walk neither too fast nor too slow, keep your steps the same length and turn automatically on the left foot at one end of the cell, on the right at the other.
One, two, three, four, five.... The cells were better lighted than those at the Conciergerie and you could hear noises from the outside, some from the disciplinary section, but also a few from the countryside beyond. At night you could catch the sounds of laborers whistling or singing on their way home from work, happy on a good cup of cider.
I had a Christmas present: through a crack in the planks that covered my window, I could see the countryside all covered with snow and a few big trees picked out by the full moon. Just like a Christmas card. Shaken by the wind, the trees had dropped their mantles of snow, black silhouettes against the white. It was Christmas; it was even Christmas in part of the prison. The Administration had made an effort for the convicts in transit: we were allowed to buy two squares of chocolate. I said two squares, not two bars. Those two squares of Aiguebelle chocolate were my New Year’s Eve for 1931.
One, two, three, four, five.... The restrictions of justice had turned me into a pendulum. This shuttle back and forth in my cell made up my entire universe. It had been mathematically worked out. Nothing, absolutely nothing was to be left in the cell. The prisoner must have no distractions. Had I been caught looking through the crack in my window, I would have been severely punished. Actually they were right, since to them I was only a living corpse. By what right did I permit myself to enjoy a glimpse of nature?
A butterfly flew past, light blue with a thin black stripe, and a bee bumbled not far from the window. What were these little beasts looking for? Drunk with the winter sun, perhaps, unless they were cold and wanted to get into prison. A butterfly in winter is like life after death. Why wasn’t it dead? And why had the bee left its hive? How foolishly bold of them to come here!
Tribouillard was a true sadist. I had a feeling something would happen between us and unfortunately I was right. The day after the visit of my charming insects, I got sick. I couldn’t take it any more. I was suffocating with loneliness. I needed to see a face, hear a voice, even an angry one, but at least a voice. I had to hear something.
Standing naked in the glacial cold of the corridor, facing the wall with my nose almost against it, I was the next to the last in a row of eight men waiting their turn to see the doctor. I wanted to see people … and I succeeded too well. The trusty came upon us at the moment I was talking under my breath to Julot, “the man with the hammer.” One whack of his fist against the back of my head and I was almost done for. I hadn’t seen it coming and I banged my nose against the wall as I fell. The blood spurted out, and, as I picked myself up, I made a tentative gesture of protest. That was all the giant needed. He gave me a sharp kick in the gut which flattened me again, then he went on to flog me with his bull-whip. That was too much for Julot. He jumped on him; there was a wild struggle. Since Julot was getting the worst of it, the guards stood by impassive. No one took any notice of me. I looked around for some kind of weapon. Suddenly I saw the doctor leaning forward in his office chair to see what was going on in the corridor, and at the same time I noticed a lid bobbing over some boiling water. The big enamel pot sat on the coal stove that warmed the doctor’s office. The steam probably served to purify the air.
I quickly picked up the pot by its handles—they burned me, but I didn’t let go—and in the same motion I threw the boiling water in the trusty’s face. He hadn’t seen me because he was too busy with Julot. He let out a terrible scream. I’d really got him. He rolled around on the floor trying to peel off his three woolen sweaters. When he got to the third, his skin came off with it. The neck of the sweater was tight, and in his effort to get it over his head, the skin of his chest, his cheeks and part of his neck came too, stuck to the wool. His only eye was scalded, so he was blind as well. He finally got to his feet, hideous, bloodied, his flesh raw, and Julot took the opportunity to give him a violent kick in the groin. The giant collapsed and started to vomit and froth at the mouth. He had got his. As for us, we didn’t have long to wait.
The two guards who had watched the scene were too cowed to attack. They called for help. It came from all sides and the clubs rained down on us like hail. I was lucky enough to be struck unconscious at the start so I didn’t feel the blows.
When I came to, I was two floors below, completely naked in a dungeon flooded with water. I slowly came to my senses and felt my bruises. They hurt. There were at least a dozen bumps on my head. What time was it? I couldn’t tell. In this place there was neither day nor night. Then I heard a knocking on the wall. It came from far away.
Pang, pang, pang, pang, pang, pang. The knocks were the ringing of the “telephone.” I had to knock twice if I wanted to get on the line. Knock, yes, but with what? In the dark I couldn’t see a thing. Fists weren’t enough; the sound wouldn’t get through. I moved closer to where I thought the door must be; it was a little lighter there. I banged into the grill. Feeling around, I figured that the door to the dungeon must be about three feet beyond and that the grill prevented me from reaching it. This was designed so that if anyone entered a dangerous prisoner’s cell, the prisoner couldn’t get at him because he was in fact in a cage. You could talk to him, throw water on him, throw food at him, insult him, all with impunity. On the other hand, you couldn’t strike him without exposing yourself to danger, for to get at him, you had to open the grill.
We telephoned for over two hours, oblivious to the danger. We were carried away. I told him that I had broken nothing, that my head was covered with bumps, but that I had no open wounds.
He had seen me being pulled down the stairs by the foot and told me that at each step my head had banged against the one above. He had never lost consciousness. He thought that Tribouillard had been badly burned and because of the wool was in serious condition. He was through for a while, at least.
Three quick taps warned me that there was trouble coming. I stopped. A few moments later the door opened. I heard someone shout:
“Get back, you bastard! Get to the back of the cell and come to attention!” It was the new trusty. “My name is Batton and my name suits my profession.” He trained a big ship’s lantern on the dungeon and my naked body.
“Here’s something to put on. But don’t you move. Here’s bread and water. Don’t eat it all at once; it’s all you’ll get for the next twenty-four hours.”
He let out a savage yell, then put the lantern up to his face. I saw that he was smiling, and not unkindly. He placed a finger to his lips and pointed to the things he was leaving me. There must have been a guard in the corridor, yet he wanted me to know that he was not my enemy.
And he wasn’t. In the bread I found a big piece of boiled meat and, in the pocket of the pants—oh riches!—a package of cigarettes and a lighter. Here such presents were worth a million. Two shirts instead of one, and woolen underwear that reached to my ankles. I’ll never forget Batton. What it meant was that he was rewarding me for getting rid of Tribouillard. Before the incident he had been only an assistant trusty. Now, thanks to me, he had the full title.
Since it required the patience of an Indian to locate the source of the “telephone
” taps and only the trusty could do it, the guards being too lazy, Julot and I went at it to our hearts’ content. We spent the entire day sending messages back and forth. From him I learned that our departure was imminent: in three or four months.
Two days later we were led out of the dungeon and, each of us flanked by two guards, were taken to the office of the director. Three men sat behind a table facing the door. It was a kind of tribunal. The director acted as president, and the assistant director and the head warden were the associate judges.
“Ah, my fine fellows, so you’re here! What have you to say for yourselves?”
Julot was very pale, his eyes were swollen, and he probably had a fever. His arm had been broken for three days now; he must be in great pain. He answered very quietly, “I have a broken arm.”
“Well, you asked for it. That should teach you not to attack people. You’ll see the doctor when he gets here. I hope it will be within the week. The wait will be good for you; perhaps the pain will teach you something. You don’t expect me to have a doctor come specially for a choice character like you, do you? So you wait until the doctor has the time to come, then he’ll take care of you. Which doesn’t prevent me from sentencing both of you to the dungeon until further notice.”
Julot’s eyes met mine. He seemed to be saying: “That elegant gentleman has a nice way of disposing of other people’s lives.”
I turned back to the director and looked at him.
Thinking I wanted to speak, he said, “You don’t care for my decision? You take exception to it?”
I replied, “No, sir. It’s just that I feel an acute need to spit in your face. But I won’t because I’m afraid to soil my saliva.”
He was so surprised that he blushed, uncertain how to react. But the head warden knew. He called to the guards:
“Haul him away and take good care of him! I expect to see him groveling in an hour. We’ll break him in! I’ll make him clean my shoes with his tongue, both tops and bottoms. Give him the works. He’s all yours.”