'Vous ne voulez pas de café?'
The threatening question recited in a hoarse voice woke me like a shot. Sprawled half on and half off my paillasse, I looked suddenly up into a juvenile pimply face with a red tassel bobbing in its eyes. A boy in a Belgian uniform was stooping over me. In one hand a huge pail a third full of liquid slime. I said fiercely: "Au contraire, je veux bien.' And collapsed on the mattress.
'Pas de quart, vous?' the face fired at me.
'Comprends pas,' I replied, wondering what on earth the words meant.
At this moment a tin cup appeared mysteriously out of the gloom and was rapidly filled from the pail, after which operation the tassel remarked. 'Your friend here,' and disappeared.
I decided I had gone completely crazy.
The cup had been deposited near me. Not daring to approach it, I boosted my aching corpse on one of its futile elbows and gazed blankly around. My eyes, wading laboriously through a dank atmosphere, a darkness gruesomely tactile, perceived only here and there lively pitches of vibrating humanity. My ears recognized English, something which I took to be Low German and which was Belgian, Dutch, Polish, and what I guessed to be Russian.
Trembling with this chaos, my hand sought the cup. The cup was not warm; the contents, which I hastily gulped, was not even tepid. The taste was dull, almost bitter, clinging, thick, nauseating. I felt a renewed interest in living as soon as the deathful swallow descended to my abdomen, very much as a suicide who changes his mind after the fatal dose. I decided that it would be useless to vomit. I sat up. I looked around.
The darkness was rapidly going out of the sluggish, stinking air. I was sitting on my mattress at one end of a sort of room, filled with pillars; ecclesiastical in feeling. I already perceived it to be of enormous length. My mattress resembled an island: all around it, at distances varying from a quarter of an inch to ten feet (which constituted the limit of distinct vision) reposed startling identities. There was blood in some of them. Others consisted of a rind of bluish matter sustaining a core of yellowish froth. From behind me a chunk of hurtling spittle joined its fellows. I decided to stand up.
At this moment, at the far end of the room, I seemed to see an extraordinary vulture-like silhouette leap up from nowhere. It rushed a little way in my direction crying hoarsely 'Corvée d'eau!'--stopped, bent down at what I perceived to be a paillasse like mine, jerked what was presumably the occupant by the feet, shook him, turned to the next, and so on up to six. As there seemed to be innumerable paillasses, laid side by side at intervals of perhaps a foot with their heads to the wall on three sides of me, I was wondering why the vulture had stopped at six. On each mattress a crude imitation of humanity, wrapped ear-high in its blanket, lay and drank from a cup like mine and spat long and high into the room. The ponderous reek of sleepy bodies undulated toward me from three directions. I had lost sight of the vulture in a kind of insane confusion which arose from the further end of the room. It was as if he had touched off six high explosives. Occasional pauses in the minutely crazy din were accurately punctuated by exploding bowels; to the great amusement of innumerable somebodies, whose precise whereabouts the gloom carefully guarded.
I felt that I was the focus of a group of indistinct recumbents who were talking about me to one another in many incomprehensible tongues. I noticed beside every pillar (including the one beside which I had innocently thrown down my paillasse the night before) a good-sized pail, overflowing with urine, and surrounded by a large irregular puddle. My paillasse was within an inch of the nearest puddle. 'What I took to be a man, an amazing distance off, got out of bed and succeeded in locating the pail nearest to him after several attempts. The invisible recumbents yelled at him in six languages.
All at once a handsome figure arose from the gloom at my elbow. I smiled stupidly into his clear, hardish eyes. And he remarked pleasantly:
'Your friend's here, Johnny, and wants to see you.'
A bulge of pleasure swooped along my body, chasing aches and numbness, my muscles danced, nerves tingled in perpetual holiday.
B. was lying on his camp-cot, wrapped like an Eskimo in a blanket which hid all but his nose and eyes.
'Hello, Cummings,' he said smiling. 'There's a man here who is a friend of Vanderbilt and knew Cézanne.'
I gazed somewhat critically at B. There was nothing particularly insane about him, unless it was his enthusiastic excitement, which might almost be attributed to my jack-in-the-box manner of arriving. He said: 'There are people here who speak English, Russian, Arabian. There are the finest people here! Did you go to Gré? I fought rats all night there. Huge ones. They tried to eat me. And from Gré to Paris? I had three gendarmes all the way to keep me from escaping, and they all fell asleep.'
I began to be afraid that I was asleep myself. 'Please be frank,' I begged. 'Strictly entre nous: am I dreaming, or is this a bug-house?'
B. laughed, and said: 'I thought so when I arrived two days ago. When I came in sight of the place a lot of girls waved from the window and yelled at me. I no sooner got inside than a queer-looking duck whom I took to be a nut came rushing up to me, and cried: "Trop tard pour la soupe!"--This is Camp de Triage de la Ferté Macé, Orne, France, and all these fine people were arrested as espions. Only two or three of them can speak a word of French, and that's soupe!'
I said: 'My God, I thought Marseilles was somewhere on the Mediterranean Ocean, and that this was a gendarmerie.'
'But this is M-a-c-é. It's a little mean town, where everybody snickers and sneers at you if they see you're a prisoner. They did at me.'
'Do you mean to say we're espions too?'
'Of course!' B. said enthusiastically. 'Thank God! And in to stay. Every time I think of the section sanitaire, and A. and his thugs, and the whole rotten red-taped Croix Rouge, I have to laugh. Cummings, I tell you this is the finest place on earth!'
A vision of the Chef de Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un passed through my mind. The doughy face. Imitation-English-officer swagger. Large calves, squeaking puttees.
The daily lecture: 'I doughno what's th' matter with you fellers. You look like nice boys. Well-edjucated. But you're so dirty in your habits. You boys are always kickin' because I don't put you on a car together. I'm ashamed to do it, that's why. I doughwanta give this section a black eye. 'We gotta show these lousy Frenchmen what Americans are. We gotta show we're superior to 'em. Those bastards doughno what a bath means. And you fellers are always hangin' round, talkin' with them dirty frog-eaters that does the cookin' and the dirty work round here. How d'you boys expect me to give you a chance? I'd like to put you fellers on a car; I wanta see you boys happy. But I don't dare to, that's why. If you want me to send you out, you gotta shave and look neat, and keep away from them dirty Frencbmen. We Americans are over here to learn them lousy bastards something.'
I laughed for sheer joy.
A terrific tumult interrupted my mirth. 'Par ici!'"---Get out of the way, you dam Polak! '---'M'sieu', M'sieu'.'---'Over here!''---'Mais non!'---'Gott-er-dummer!' I turned in terror to see my paillasse in the clutches of four men who were apparently rending it in as many directions.
One was a clean-shaved youngish man with lively eyes, alert and muscular, whom I identified as the man who had called me 'Johnny.' He had hold of a corner of the mattress and was pulling against the possessor of the opposite corner: an incoherent personage enveloped in a buffoonery of amazing rags and, patches, with a shabby head on which excited wisps of dirty hair stood upright in excitement, and the tall, ludicrous, extraordinary, almost noble figure of a dancing bear. A third corner of the paillasse was rudely grasped by a six-foot combination of yellow hair, red hooligan face, and sky-blue trousers; assisted by the undersized tasselled mucker in Belgian uniform, with a pimply rogue's mug and unlimited impertinence of diction, who had awakened me by demanding if I wanted coffee. Albeit completely dazed by the uncouth vocal fracas, I realized in some manner that these hostile forces were contending, not for the possession of the mattress, but merely for the privilege of presenting the mattress to myself.
Before I could offer any advice on this delicate topic, a childish voice cried emphatically beside my ear: 'Met-tez la pail-lasse ici! Qu'est le que vous al-lez faire? C'est pas la peine de dé-chi-rer une pail-lasse!'----at the saine moment the mattress rushed with cobalt strides in my direction, propelled by the successful efforts of the Belgian uniform and the hooligan visage, the clean-shaven man and the incoherent bear still desperately clutching their respective corners; and upon its arrival was seized with surprising strength by the owner of the child's voice---a fluffy little gnome-shaped man with a sensitive face which had suffered much---and indignantly deposited beside B.'s bed in a space mysteriously cleared for its reception. The gnome immediately kneeled upon it and fell to carefully smoothing certain creases caused by the recent conflict, exclaiming slowly, syllable by syllable: 'Mon Dieu. Main-te-nant, c'est mieux. Il ne faut pas faire des choses comme ça.' The clean-shaven man regarded him loftily with folded arms, while the tassel and the trousers victoriously inquired if I had a cigarette?---and upon receiving one apiece (also the gnome, and the clean-shaven man, who accepted his with some dignity) sat down without much ado on B.'s bed---which groaned ominously in protest---and hungrily fired questions at me. The bear meanwhile, looking as if nothing had happened, adjusted his ruffled costume with a satisfied air and (calmly gazing into the distance) began with singularly delicate fingers to stuff a stunted and ancient pipe with what appeared to be a mixture of wood and manure.
I was still answering questions, when a gnarled voice suddenly threatened, over our heads: 'Balai? Vous. Tout le monde propre. Surveillant dit. Pas moi, n'est-ce pas?' -I started, expecting to see a parrot.
It was the silhouette.
A vulture-like figure stood before me, a demoralized broom clenched in one claw or fist: it had lean legs cased in shabby trousers, muscular shoulders covered with a rough shirt open at the neck, knotted arms, and a coarse, insane face crammed beneath the visor of a cap. The face consisted of a rapid nose, drooping moustache, ferocious watery small eyes, a pugnacious chin, and sunken cheeks hideously smiling. There was something in the ensemble at once brutal and ridiculous, vigorous and pathetic.
Again I had not time to speak; for the hooligan in azure trousers hurled his butt at the bear's feet, exclaiming: 'There's another for you, Polak!---jumped from the bed, seized the broom, and poured upon the vulture a torrent of Gott-verdummers, to which the latter replied copiously and in kind. Then the red face bent within a few inches of my own, and for the first time I saw that it had recently been young--'I say I do your sweep for you,' it translated pleasantly. I thanked it; and the vulture, exclaiming, 'Bon. Bon. Pas moi. Surveillant. Harree faire pour tout le monde. Hee, hee'--rushed off, followed by Harree and the tassel. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the tall, ludicrous, extraordinary, almost proud .figure of the bear stoop with quiet dignity, the musical fingers close with a singular delicacy upon the moist, indescribable eighth-of-an-inch of tobacco.
I did not know that this was a Delectable Mountain....
The clean-shaven man (who appeared to have been completely won over by his smoke) and the fluffy gnome, who had completed the arrangement of my paillasse, now entered into conversation with myself and B.; the clean-shaven one seating himself in Harree's stead, the gnome declining (on the ground that the bed was already sufficiently loaded) to occupy the place left vacant by the tassel's exit, and leaning against the drab, sweating, poisonous wall. He managed, however, to call our attention to the shelf at B.'s head which he himself had constructed, and promised me a similar luxury tout de suite. He was a Russian, and had a wife and gosse in Paris. 'Je m'ap-pelle Monsieur Au-guste à votre ser-vice'---and his gentle pale eyes sparkled. The clean-shaven talked distinct and absolutely perfect English. His name was Fritz. He was a Norwegian, a stoker on a ship. 'You mustn't mind that feller that wanted you to sweep. He's crazy. They call him John the Baigneur. He used to be the baigneur. Now he's Maitre de Chambre. They wanted me to take it---I said, "F--- it, I don't want it." Let him have it. That's no kind of a job, every one complaining and on top of you morning till night. "Let them that wants the job take it," I said. That crazy Dutchman's been here for two years. They told him to get out and he wouldn't, he was too fond of the booze' (I jumped at the slang) 'and the girls. They took it away from John and give it to that little Ree-shar feller, that doctor. That was a swell job he had, baigneur, too. All the bloody liquor you can drink and a girl every time you want one. He ain't never had a girl in his life, that Ree-shar feller.' His laughter was hard, clear, cynical. 'That Pompom, the little Belgian feller was just here, he's a great one for the girls. He and Harree. Always getting cabinot. I got it twice myself since I been here.'
All this time the enormous room was filling gradually with dirty light. In the further end six figures were brooming furiously, yelling to each other in the dust like demons. A seventh, Harree, was loping to and fro splashing water from a pail and enveloping everything and everybody in a ponderous and blasphemous fog of Gott-verdummers. Along three sides (with the exception, that is, of the nearer end, which boasted the sole door) were laid, with their lengths at right angles to the walls, at intervals of three or four feet, something like forty paillasses. On each, with half a dozen exceptions (where the occupants had not yet finished their coffee or were on duty for the corvée), lay the headless body of a man smothered in its blanket, only the boots showing.
The demons were working toward our end of the room. Harree had got his broom and was assisting. Nearer and nearer they came; converging, they united their separate heaps of filth in a loudly stinking single mound at the door. Brooms were stacked against the wall in the corner. The men strolled back to their paillasses.
Monsieur Auguste, whose French had not been able to keep pace with Fritz's English, saw his chance, and proposed 'Main-te-nant que la Chambre est tout propre, allons faire une pe-tite pro-me-nade, tous les trois? Fritz understood perfectly, and rose, remarking as he fingered his immaculate chin, 'Well, I guess I'll take a shave before the bloody planton comes'---and Monsieur Auguste, B. and I started down the room.
It was in shape oblong, about 80 feet by 40, unmistakably ecclesiastical in feeling-two rows of wooden pillars, spaced at intervals of fifteen feet, rose to a vaulted ceiling 25 or 3 0 feet above the floor. As you stood with your back to the door, and faced down the room, you had in the near right-hand corner (where the brooms stood) six pails of urine. On the right-hand long wall, a little beyond the angle of this corner, a few boards tacked together in any fashion to make a two-sided screen four feet in height marked the position of a cabinet d'aisance, composed of a small coverless tin pail identical with the other six, and a board of the usual design which could be placed on the pail or not as desired. The wooden floor in the neighbourhood of the booth and pails was of a dark colour, obviously owing to the continual overflow of their contents.
The right-hand long wall contained something like ten large windows, of which the first was commanded by the somewhat primitive cabinet. There were no other windows in the remaining walls; or they had been carefully rendered useless. In spite of this fact, the inhabitants had contrived a couple of peep-holes---one in the door-end and one in the left-hand long wall; the former commanding the gate by which I had entered, the latter a portion of the street by which I had reached the gate. The blocking of all windows on three sides had an obvious significance: les hommes were not supposed to see anything which went on in the world without; les hommes might, however, look their fill on a little washing-shed, on a corner of what seemed to be another wing of the building, and on a bleak, lifeless, abject landscape of scrubby woods beyond---which constituted the view from the ten windows on the right. The authorities had miscalculated a little in one respect: a merest fraction of the barb-wire pen which began at the corner of the above-mentioned building was visible from these windows, which windows (I was told) were consequently thronged by fighting men at the time of the girls' promenade. A planton, I was also told, made it his business, by keeping les femmes out of this corner of their cour at the point of the bayonet, to deprive them of the sight of their admirers. In addition, it was pain sec or cabinot for any of either sex who were caught communicating with each other. Moreover the promenades des hommes et des femmes occurred at, roughly speaking, the same hour, so that an homme or femme who remained upstairs on the chance of getting a smile or a wave from his or her girl or lover lost the promenade thereby....
We had in succession gazed from the windows, crossed the end of the room, and started down the other side, Monsieur Auguste marching between us---when suddenly B. exclaimed in English, 'Good morning! How are you to-day?' And I looked across Monsieur Auguste, anticipating another Harree or at least a Fritz. What was my surprise to see a spare majestic figure of manifest refinement, immaculately apparelled in a crisp albeit collarless shirt, carefully mended trousers in which the remains of a crease still lingered, a threadbare but perfectly fitting swallow-tail coat, and newly varnished (if somewhat ancient) shoes. Indeed for the first time since my arrival at La Ferté I was confronted by a perfect type: the apotheosis of injured nobility, the humiliated victim of perfectly unfortunate circumstances, the utterly respectable gentleman who has seen better days. There was about him, moreover, something irretrievably English, nay even pathetically Victorian---it was as if a page of Dickens was shaking my friend's hand. 'Count Bragard, I want you to meet my friend Cummings'---he saluted me in modulated and courteous accents of indisputable culture, gracefully extending his pale hand. 'I have heard a great deal about you from B., and wanted very much to meet you. It is a pleasure to find a friend of my friend B., some one congenial and intelligent in contrast to these swine'---he indicated the room with a gesture of complete contempt. 'I see you were strolling. Let us take a turn.' Monsieur Auguste said tactfully, 'Je vais vous voir tout à l'heure, mes amis,' and left us with an affectionate shake of the hand and a side-long glance of jealousy and mistrust at B.'s respectable friend.
'You're looking pretty well to-day, Count Bragard,' B. said amiably.
'I do well enough,' the count answered. 'It is a frightful strain---you of course realize that---for anyone who has been accustomed to the decencies, let alone the luxuries, of life. This filth'---he pronounced the word with indescribable bitterness---'this herding of men like cattle they treat us no better than pigs here. The fellows drop their dung in the very room where they sleep. What is one to expect of a place like this? Ce n'est pas une existence---' his French was glib and faultless.
'I was telling my friend that you knew Cézanne,' said B. 'Being an artist he was naturally much interested.'
Count Bragard stopped in astonishment, and withdrew his hands slowly from the tails of his coat. 'Is it possible!' he exclaimed, in great agitation. 'What an astonishing coincidence! I am myself a painter. You perhaps noticed this badge---he indicated a button attached to his left lapel, and I bent and read the words: On War Service. 'I always wear it,' he said with a smile of faultless sorrow, and resumed his walk. 'They don't know what it means here, but I wear it all the same. I was a special representative for the London Sphere at the front in this war. I did the trenches and all that sort of thing. They paid me well; I got fifteen pounds a week. And why not? I am an R.A. My speciality was horses. I painted the finest horses in England, among them the King's own entry in the last Derby. Do you know London?' We said no. 'If you are ever in London, go to the' (I forget the name) 'Hotel---one of the best in town. It has a beautiful large bar, exquisitely furnished in the very best taste. Anyone will tell you where to find the It has one of my paintings over the bar: Straight-jacket' (or some such name) 'The Marquis of ---- 's horse, who won last time the race was run. I was in America in 1910. You know Cornelius Vanderbilt perhaps? I painted some of his horses. We were the best of friends, Vanderbilt and I. I got handsome prices, you understand, three, five, six thousand pounds. When I left, he gave me this card---I have it here somewhere---' he again stopped, sought in his breast-pocket a moment, and produced a visiting card. On one side I read the name 'Cornelius Vanderbilt'---on the other, in bold handwriting--to my very dear friend Count F. A. de Bragard' and a date. 'He hated to have me go.'
I was walking in a dream.
'Have you your sketch-books and paints with you? What a pity. I am always intending to send to England for mine, but you know-one can't paint in a place like this. It is impossible--- all this dirt and these filthy people---it stinks! Ugh!'
I forced myself to say: 'How did you happen to come here?'
He shrugged his shoulders. 'How indeed, you may well ask! I cannot tell. you. It must have been some hideous mistake. As soon as I got here I spoke to the Directeur and to the Surveillant. The Directeur said he knew nothing about it; the Surveillant told me confidentially that it was a mistake on the part of the French Government; that I would be out directly. He's not such a bad sort. So I am waiting: every day I expect orders from the English Government for my release. The whole thing is preposterous. I wrote to the Embassy and told them so. As soon as I set foot outside this place, I shall sue the French Government for ten thousand pounds for the loss of time it has occasioned me. Imagine it---I had contracts with countless members of The Lords---and the war came. Then I was sent to the front by the Sphere---and here I am, every day costing me dear, rotting away in this horrible place. The time I have wasted here has already cost me a fortune.'
He paused directly in front of the door and spoke with solemnity: 'A man might as well be dead.'
Scarcely had the words passed his lips when I almost jumped out of my skin, for directly before us on the other side of the wall arose the very noise which announced to Scrooge the approach of Marley's ghost---a dismal clanking and rattling of chains. Had Marley's transparent figure walked straight through the wall and up to the Dickensian character at my side, I would have been less surprised than I was by what actually happened.
The doors opened with an uncanny bang and in the bang stood a fragile, minute, queer figure, remotely suggesting an old man. The chief characteristic of the apparition was a certain disagreeable nudity which resulted from a complete lack of all the accepted appurtenances and prerogatives of old age. Its little stooping body, helpless and brittle, bore with extraordinary difficulty a head of absurd largeness, yet which moved on the fleshless neck with a horrible agility. Dull eyes sat in the clean-shaven wrinkles of a face neatly hopeless. At the knees a pair of hands hung, infantile in their smallness. In the loose mouth a tiny cigarette had perched and was solemnly smoking itself.
Suddenly the figure darted at me with a spiderlike entirety.
I felt myself lost.
A voice said mechanically from the vicinity of my feet: 'Il vous faut prendre des douches'---I stared stupidly. The spectre was poised before me; its averted eyes contemplated the window. 'Take your bath,' it added as an afterthought, in English---'come with me.' It turned suddenly. It hurried to the doorway. I followed. Its rapid, deadly, doll-like bands shut and skilfully locked the doors in a twinkling. 'Come,' its voice said.
It hurried before me down two dirty flights of narrow, mutilated stairs. It turned left, and passed through an open door.
I found myself in the wet sunless air of morning.
To the right it hurried, following the wall of the building. I pursued it mechanically. At the comer, which I had seen from the window upstairs, the barbed-wire fence eight feet in height began. The thing paused, produced a key, and unlocked a gate. The first three or four feet of wire swung inward. He entered, I after him.
In a flash the gate was locked behind me, and I was following along a wall at right angles to the first. I strode after the thing. A moment before I had been walking in a free world: now I was again a prisoner. The sky was still over me, the clammy morning caressed me; but walls of wire and stone told me that my instant of freedom had departed. I was in fact traversing a lane no wider than the gate; on my left, barbed-wire separated me from the famous cour in which les femmes se promènent---a rectangle about 50 feet deep and 200 long, with a stone wall at the farther end of it and otherwise surrounded by wire; ---on my right, grey sameness of stone, the ennui of the regular and the perpendicular, the ponderous ferocity of silence....
I had taken automatically some six or eight steps in pursuit of the fleeing spectre when, right over my head, the grey stone curdled with a female darkness; the hard and the angular softening in a putrescent explosion of thick wriggling laughter. I started, looked up, and encountered a window stuffed with four savage fragments of crowding Face: four livid, shaggy disks focusing hungrily; four pairs of uncouth eyes rapidly smouldering; eight lips shaking in a toothless and viscous titter. Suddenly above and behind these terrors rose a single horror of beauty---a crisp, vital head, a young ivory actual face, a night of firm, alive, icy hair, a white large frightful smile.
. . . The thing was crying two or three paces in front of me: 'Come!' The heads had vanished as by magic.
I dived forward; followed through a little door in the wall into a room about fifteen feet square, occupied by a small stove, a pile of wood, and a ladder. He plunged through another even smaller door, into a bleak rectangular place, where I was confronted on the left by a large tin bath and on the right by ten wooden tubs, each about a yard in diameter, set in a row against the wall. 'Undress,' commanded the spectre. I did so. 'Go into the first one.' I climbed into a tub. 'You shall pull the string,' the spectre said, hurriedly throwing his cigarette into a corner. I stared upward, and discovered a string dangling from a kind of reservoir over my head: I pulled: and was saluted by a stabbing crash of icy water. I leaped from the tub. 'Here is your napkin. Make dry yourself'---he handed me a piece of cloth a little bigger than a handkerchief. 'Hurree.' I donned my clothes, wet and shivering and altogether miserable. 'Good. Come now!' I followed him, through the room with the stove, into the barb-wire lane. A hoarse shout rose from the yard---which was filled with women, girls, children, and a baby or two. I thought I recognized one of the four terrors who had saluted me from the window, in a girl of 18 with a soiled, slobby body huddling beneath its. dingy dress; her bony shoulders stifled in a shawl upon which excremental hair limply spouted; a huge empty mouth; and a red nose, sticking between the bluish cheeks that shook with spasms of coughing. Just inside the wire a figure reminiscent of Gré, gun on shoulder, revolver on hip, moved monotonously.
The apparition hurried me through the gate and along the wall into the building, where instead of mounting the stairs he pointed down a long gloomy corridor with a square of light at the end of it, saying rapidly, 'Go to the promenade'---and vanished.
With the laughter of the Five still ringing in my ears, and no very clear conception of the meaning of existence, I stumbled down the corridor, bumping squarely into a beefy figure with a bull's neck and the familiar revolver, who demanded furiously: 'Qu'est-ce que vous faites là? Nom de Dieu!'---'Pardon. Les douches,' I answered, quelled by the collision.---He demanded in wrathy French, 'Who took you to the douches?'---For a moment I was at a complete loss---then Fritz's remark about the new baigneur flashed through my mind: 'Ree-shar,' I answered calmly.---The bull snorted satisfactorily. 'Get into the cour and hurry up about it,' he ordered----'C'est par là?' I inquired politely.---He stared at me contemptuously without answering; so I took it upon myself to use the nearest door, hoping that he would have the decency not to shoot me. I had no sooner crossed the threshold when I found myself once more in the welcome air; and not ten paces away I espied B. peacefully lounging, with some thirty others, within a cour about one quarter the size of the women's. I marched up to a little dingy gate in the barbed-wire fence, and was hunting for the latch (as no padlock was in evidence) when a scared voice cried loudly, 'Qu'est-ce que vous faites là!' and I found myself stupidly looking into a rifle. B., Fritz, Harree, Pompom, Monsieur Auguste, The Bear, and last but not least Count de Bragard immediately informed the trembling planton that I was a Nouveau who had just returned from the douches to which I had been escorted by Monsieur Reeshar, and that I should be admitted to the cour by all means. The cautious watcher of the skies was not however to be fooled by any such fol-de-rol and stood his ground. Fortunately at this point the beefy planton yelled from the doorway, 'Let him in.' And I was accordingly let in, to the gratification of my friends, and against the better judgment of the guardian of the cour, who muttered something about having more than enough to do already.
I had not been mistaken as to the size of the men's yard: it was certainly not more than twenty yards deep and fifteen wide. By the distinctness with which the shouts of les femmes reached my ears, I perceived that the two cours adjoined. They were separated by a stone wall ten feet in height, which I had already remarked (while en route to les douches) as forming one end of the cour des femmes. The men's cour had another stone wall slightly higher than the first, and which ran parallel to it; the two remaining sides, which were properly ends, were made by the familiar fil-de-fer barbelé.
The furniture of the cour was simple: in the middle of the further end, a wooden sentry-box was placed just inside the wire; a curious contrivance, which I discovered to be a sister to the booth upstairs, graced, the wall on the left which separated the two cours, while further up on this wall a horizontal iron bar projected from the stone at a height of seven feet and was supported at its other end by a wooden post, the idea apparently being to give the prisoners a little taste of gymnastic; a minute wooden shed filled the right upper corner and served secondarily as a very partial shelter for les hommes and primarily as a stable for an extraordinary water-wagon, composed of a wooden barrel on two wheels with shafts which could not possibly accommodate anything larger than a diminutive donkey (but in which I myself was to walk not infrequently, as it proved) ; parallel to the second stone wall, but at a safe distance from it, stretched a couple of iron girders serving as a barbarously cold seat for any unfortunate who could not remain on his feet the entire time; on the ground close by the shed lay amusement devices numbers 2 and 3---a huge iron cannon-ball and the six-foot iron axle of a departed wagon---for testing the strength of the prisoners and beguiling any time which might lie heavily on their hands after they had regaled themselves with the horizontal bar; and finally, a dozen mangy apple-trees, fighting for their very lives in the angry soil, proclaimed to all the world that the cour itself was in reality a verger.
'Les pommiers sont pleins de pommes;
Allons au verger, Simone.' ...
A description of the cour would be incomplete without an enumeration of the manifold duties of the planton in charge, which were as follows: to prevent the men from using the horizontal bar, except for chinning, since if you swung yourself upon it you could look over the wall into the women's cour; to see that no one threw anything over the wall into said cour; to dodge the cannon-ball which had a mysterious habit of taking advantage of the slope of the ground and bounding along at a prodigious rate of speed straight for the sentry-box; to watch closely anyone who inhabited the cabinet d'aisance, lest be should make use of it to vault over the wall; to see that no one stood on the girders, for a similar reason; to keep watch over anyone who entered the shed; to see that every one urinated properly against the wall in the general vicinity of the cabinet; to protect the apple-trees into which well-aimed pieces of wood and stone were continually flying and dislodging the sacred fruit; to mind that no one entered or exited by the gate in the upper fence without authority: to report any signs, words, tokens, or other immoralities exchanged by prisoners with girls sitting in the windows of the women's wing (it was from one of these windows that I had recently received my salutation), also names of said girls, it being défendu to exhibit any part of the female person at a window while the males were on promenade; to quell all rixes and especially to prevent people from using the wagon axle as a weapon of defence or offence; and last, to keep an eye on the balayeur when he and his wheelbarrow made use of a secondary gate situated in the fence at the further end, not far from the sentry-box, to dump themselves.
Having acquainted me with the various défendus which limited the activities of a man on promenade, my friends proceeded to enliven the otherwise somewhat tedious morning by shattering one after another all rules and regulations. Fritz, having chinned himself fifteen times, suddenly appeared astride of the bar, evoking a reprimand; Pompom bowled the planton with the cannon-ball, apologizing in profuse and vile French; Harree the Hollander tossed the wagon-axle lightly half the length of the cour, missing The Bear by an inch; The Bear bided his time and cleverly hurled a large stick into one of the holy trees, bringing to the ground a withered apple for which at least twenty people fought for several minutes; and so on. The most open gestures were indulged in for the benefit of several girls who had braved the official wrath and were enjoying the morning at their windows. The girders were used as a race-track. The beams supporting the shed-room were shinned. The water-wagon was dislocated from its proper position. The cabinet and urinal were misused. The gate was continually admitting and emitting persons who said they were thirsty, and must get a drink at a tub of water which stood around the comer. A letter was surreptitiously thrown over the wall into the cour des femmes.
The planton who suffered all these indignities was a solemn youth with wise eyes situated very far apart in a mealy expressionless ellipse of face, to the lower end of which clung a piece of down, exactly like a feather sticking to an egg. The rest of him was fairly normal with the exception of his hands, which were not mates; the left being considerably larger, and made of wood.
I was at first somewhat startled by this eccentricity; but soon learned that with the exception of two or three, who formed the Surveillant's permanent staff and of whom the beefy one was a shining example, all the plantons were supposed to be unhealthy; they were indeed réformés whom le gouvernement français sent from time to time to La Ferté and similar institutions for a little outing, and as soon as they had recovered their health under these salubrious influences they were shipped back to do their bit for world-safety, democracy, freedom, etc., in the trenches. I also learned that of all the ways of attaining cabinot by far the simplest was to apply to a planton, particularly to a permanent planton, say the beefy one (who was reputed to be peculiarly touchy on this point) the term embusqué. This method never failed. To its efficacy many of les hommes, and more of the girls (by whom the plantons, owing to their habit of taking advantage of the weaker sex at every opportunity, were even more despised) attested by not infrequent spasms of consumptive coughing, which could be plainly heard from the further end of one cour to the other.
In a little over two hours I learned an astonishing lot about La Ferté itself: it was a co-educational receiving station whither were sent from various parts of France (a) males suspected of espionnage and (b) females of a well-known type qui se trouvaient dans la zone des armées. It was pointed out to me that the task of finding such members of the human race was pas difficile: in the case of the men, any foreigner would do, provided his country was neutral (e.g. Holland) ; as for the girls, inasmuch as the armies of the Allies were continually retreating, the zone des armées (particularly in the case of Belgium) was always including new cities, whose petites femmes became automatically subject to arrest. It was not to be supposed that all the women of La Ferté were putains; there were a large number of femmes honnêtes, the wives of prisoners, who met their husbands at specified times on the floor below the men's quarters, whither man and woman were duly and separately conducted by plantons. In this case no charges had been preferred against the women; they were voluntary prisoners, who had preferred to freedom this living in proximity to their husbands. Many of them had children; some babies. In addition there were certain femmes honnêtes whose nationality, as in the case of the men, had cost them their liberty; Margherite the blanchisseuse, for example, was a German.
La Ferté Macé was not, properly speaking, a prison, but a Porte or Camp de Triage: that is to say, persons sent to it were held for a Commission, composed of an official, an avocat, and a capitaine de gendarmerie, which inspected the camp and passed upon each case in turn for the purpose of determining the guiltiness of the suspected party. If the latter were found guilty by the commission, he or she was sent off to a regular prison camp pour la durée de la guerre; if not guilty, he or she was (in theory) set free. The Commission came to La Ferté once every three months. It should be added that there were prisonniers who had passed the Commission two, three, four and even five times, without any appreciable result; there were prisonnières who had remained in La. Ferté a year, and even eighteen months.
The authorities at La Ferté consisted of the Directeur, or general overlord, the Surveillant, who had the plantons under him and was responsible to the Directeur for the administration of the camp, and the Gestionnaire (who kept the accounts). As assistant, the Surveillant had a mail clerk who acted as translator on occasion. Twice week the camp was visited by a regular French army doctor (médecin major) who was supposed to prescribe in severe cases and to give the women venereal inspection at regular intervals. The daily routine of attending to minor ailments and injuries was in the hands of Monsieur Ree-shar (Richard), who knew probably less about medicine than any man living and was an ordinary prisonnier like all of us, but whose impeccable conduct merited cosy quarters. A balayeur was appointed from time to time by the Surveillant, acting for the Directeur, from the inhabitants of La Ferté, as was also a cook's assistant. The regular cook was a fixture, and a boche like the other fixtures, Margherite and Richard. This fact might seem curious were it not that the manner, appearance and actions of the Directeur himself proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was all which the term boche could possibly imply.
'He's a son of a bitch,' B. said heartily. 'They took me up to him when I came two days ago. As soon as he saw me he bellowed: "Imbécile et inchrétien!"; then he called me a great lot of other things, including Shame of my country, Traitor to the sacred pause of liberty, Contemptible coward and Vile, sneaking spy. When he got all through I said, "Je ne comprends pas le français." You should have seen him then.'
Separation of the sexes was enforced, not, it is true, with success, but with a commendable ferocity. The punishments for both men and girls were pain sec and cabinot.
'What on earth is cabinot?' I demanded.
There were various cabinots: each sex had its regular cabinot, and there were certain extra ones. B. knew all about them from Harree and Pompom, who spent nearly all their time in the cabinot. They were rooms about nine feet square and six feet high. There was no light and no floor, and the ground (three were on the ground floor) was always wet and often a good many inches under water. The occupant on entering was searched for tobacco, deprived of his or her paillasse and blanket, and invited to sleep on the ground on some planks. One didn't need to write a letter to a member of the opposite sex to get cabinot, or even to call a planton embusqué---there was a woman, a foreigner, who, instead of sending a letter to her embassy through the bureau (where all letters were read by the mail clerk to make sure that they said nothing disagreeable about the authorities or conditions of La Ferté) tried to smuggle it outside, and attrapait vingt-huit jours de cabinot. She had previously written three times, handing the letters to the Surveillant, as per regulations, and had received no reply. Fritz, who had no idea why he was arrested and was crazy to get in touch with his embassy, had likewise written several letters, taking the utmost care to state the facts only and always handing them in; but he had never received a word in return. The obvious inference was that letters from a foreigner to his embassy were duly accepted by the Surveillant, but rarely if ever left La Ferté.
B. and I were conversing merrily à propos the God-sent miracle of our escape from Vingt-et-Un, when a benign-faced personage of about fifty with sparse greyish hair and a Benjamin Franklin expression appeared on the other side of the fence, from the direction of the door through which I had passed after bumping the beefy bull. 'Planton,' it cried heavily to the wooden-handed one. 'Deux hommes pour aller chercher l'eau.' Harree and Pompom were already at the gate with the archaic water-wagon, the former pushing from behind and the latter in the shafts. The guardian of the cour walked up and opened the gate for them, after ascertaining that another planton was waiting at the corner of the building to escort them on their mission. A little way from the cour, the stone wall which formed one of its boundaries (and which ran parallel to the other stone wall dividing the two cours) met the prison building; and here was a huge double-door, twice padlocked, through which the water-seekers passed on to the street. There was a sort of hydrant up the street a few hundred yards, I was told. The cook (Benjamin F. that is) required from three to six wagonfuls of water twice a day, and in reward for the labour involved in its capture was in the habit of giving a cup of coffee to the captors. I resolved that I would seek water at the earliest opportunity.
Harree and Pompom had completed their third and final trip and returned from the kitchen, smacking their lips and wiping their mouths with the backs of their hands. I was gazing airily into the muddy sky, when a roar issued from the doorway:
'Montez les hommes!'
It was the beefy-necked. We filed from the cour, through the door, past a little window which I was told belonged to the kitchen, down the clammy corridor, up the three flights of stairs, to the door of The Enormous Room. Padlocks were unlocked, chains rattled, and the door thrown open. We entered. The Enormous Room received us in silence. The door was slammed and locked behind us by. the planton, whom we could hear descending the gnarled and filthy stairs.
In the course of a half-hour, which time as I was informed intervened between the just-ended morning promenade and the noon meal which was the next thing on the programme, I gleaned considerable information concerning the daily schedule of La Ferté. A typical day was divided by planton---cries as follows:
(1 ) 'Café.' At 5.30 every morning a planton or plantons mounted to the room. One man descended to the kitchen, got a pail of coffee, and brought it up.
(2) 'Corvée d'eau.' From time to time the occupants of the room chose one of their number to be 'maître de chambre,' or roughly speaking Boss. 'When the planton opened the door, allowing the coffee-getter to descend, it was the duty of the maître de chambre to rouse a certain number of the men (generally six, the occupants of the room being taken in rotation), who forthwith carried the pails of urine and excrement to the door. Upon the arrival of coffee, the maître de chambre and his crew 'descended' said pails, together with a few clean pails for water, to the ground floor; where a planton was in readiness to escort them to a sort of sewer situated a few yards beyond the cour des femmes. Here the full pails were dumped: with the exception, occasionally, of one or two pails of urine which the Surveillant might direct to be thrown on the Directeur's little garden in which it was rumoured he was growing a rose for his daughter. From the sewer the Corvée gang were escorted to a pump, where they filled their water pails. They then mounted to the room, where the emptied pails were ranged against the wall beside the door, with the exception of one which was returned to the cabinet. The water pails were placed hard by. The door was now locked, and the planton descended.
'While the men selected for corvée had been performing their duties the other occupants had been enjoying coffee. The corvée men now joined them. The maître de chambre usually allowed about fifteen minutes for himself and his crew to consume their breakfast. He then announced:
(3) 'Nettoyage de Chambre.' Some one sprinkled the floor with water from one of the pails which had been just brought up. The other members of the crew swept the room, fusing their separate piles of filth at the door. This process consumed something like a half-hour.
(4) The sweeping completed, the men had nothing more to do till 7.30, at which hour a planton mounted, announcing 'A la promenade les hommes.' The corvée crew now carried down the product of their late labours. The other occupants descended or not directly to the cour, according to their tastes; morning promenade being optional. At 9.30 the planton demanded:
(5) 'Montez les hommes.' Those who had taken advantage of the morning stroll were brought upstairs to the room, the corvée men descended the excrement which had accumulated during promenade, and everybody was thereupon locked in for a half-hour, or until ten o'clock, when a planton again mounted and cried:
(6) 'A la soupe les hommes.' Every one descended to a wing of the building opposite the cour des hommes, where the noon meal was enjoyed until 10.30 or thereabouts, when the order:
(7) 'Tout le monde en haut' was given. There was a digestive interval of two and a half hours spent in the room. At one o'clock a planton mounted, announcing:
(8) 'Les hommes à la promenade' (in which case the afternoon promenade was a matter of choice) or 'Tout le monde en bas,' whereat every one had to descend, willy-nilly, 'plucher les pommes'---potatoes (which constituted the pièce de résistance of 'la soupe') being peeled and sliced on alternate days by the men and the girls. At 3.30:
(9) 'Tout le monde en haut' was again given, the world mounted, the corvée crew descended excrement, and every one was then locked in till 4, at which hour a planton arrived to announce:
(10) 'A la soupe,' that is to say the evening meal, or dinner. After dinner anyone who wished might go on promenade for an hour; those who wished might return to the room. At eight o'clock the planton made a final inspection and pronounced:
(11) 'Lumières éteintes.'
The most terrible cry of all, and which was not included in the regular programme of planton-cries, consisted of the words:
'A la douche les hommes'---when all, sick, dead and dying not excepted, descended to the baths. Although les douches came only once in quinze jours, such was the terror they inspired that it was necessary for the planton to hunt under paillasses for people who would have preferred death itself.
Upon remarking that corvée d'eau must be excessively disagreeable, I was informed that it had its bright side, viz. that in going to and from the sewer one could easily exchange a furtive signal with the women who always took pains to be at their windows at that moment. Influenced perhaps by this, Harree and Pompom were in the habit of doing their friends' corvées for a consideration. The girls, I was further instructed, had their corvée (as well as their meals) just after the men; and the miraculous stupidity of the plantons had been known to result in the coincidence of the two.
At this point somebody asked me how I had enjoyed my douche?
I was replying in terms of unmeasured opprobrium when I was interrupted by that gruesome clanking and rattling which announced the opening of the door. A moment later it was thrown wide, and the beefy-neck stood in the doorway, a huge bunch of keys in his paw, and shouted:
'A la soupe les hommes.'
The cry was lost in a tremendous confusion, a reckless thither-and-hithering of humanity, every one trying to be at the door, spoon in hand, before his neighbour. B. said calmly, extracting his own spoon from beneath his paillasse, on which we were seated: 'They'll give you yours downstairs, and when you get it you want to hide it or it'll be pinched'---and in company with Monsieur Bragard, who bad refused the morning promenade, and whose gentility would not permit him to hurry when it was a question of such a low craving as hunger, we joined the dancing, roaring throng at the door. I was not too famished myself to be unimpressed by the instantaneous change which had come over The Enormous Room's occupants. Never did Circe herself cast upon men so bestial an enchantment. Among these faces convulsed with. utter animalism I scarcely recognized my various acquaintances. The transformation produced by the planton's shout was not merely amazing; it was uncanny, and not a little thrilling. These eyes bubbling with lust, obscene grins sprouting from contorted lips, bodies unclenching and clenching in unctuous gestures of complete savagery, convinced me by a certain insane beauty. Before the arbiter of their destinies some thirty creatures, hideous and authentic, poised, cohering in a sole chaos of desire; a fluent and numerous cluster of vital inhumanity. As I contemplated this ferocious and uncouth miracle, this beautiful manifestation of the sinister alchemy of hunger, I felt that the last vestige of individualism was about utterly to disappear, wholly abolished in a gambolling and wallowing throb.
The beefy-neck bellowed:
'Est-ce que vous êtes tous ici?
A shrill roar of language answered. He looked contemptuously around him, upon the thirty clamouring faces each of which wanted to eat him---puttees, revolver and all. Then he cried:
Squirming, jostling, fighting, roaring, we poured slowly through the doorway. Ridiculously. Horribly. I felt like a glorious microbe in huge, absurd din irrevocably swathed. B. was beside me. A little ahead Monsieur Auguste's voice protested. Count Bragard brought up the rear.
When we reached the corridor nearly all the breath was knocked out of me. The corridor being wider than the stairs allowed me to inhale and look around. B. was yelling in my ear:
'Look at the Hollanders and the Belgians! They're always ahead when it comes to food!'
Sure enough: John the Bathman, Harree and Pompom were leading this extraordinary procession. Fritz was right behind them, however, and pressing the leaders hard. I heard Monsieur Auguste crying in his child's voice:
'Si tout-le-monde veut marcher dou-ce-ment nous allons ar-ri-ver plus tôt! Il faut pas faire comme Ça!'
Then suddenly the roar ceased. The mêlée integrated. We were marching in orderly ranks. B. said:
At the end of the corridor, opposite the kitchen window, there was a flight of stairs. On the third stair from the bottom stood (teetering a little slowly back and forth, his lean hands joined behind him and twitching regularly, a képi tilted forward on his cadaverous head so that its visor almost hid the weak eyes sunkenly peering from under droopy eyebrows, his pompous rooster-like body immaculately attired in a shiny uniform, his puttees sleeked, his croix polished) ---The Fencer. There was a renovated look about him which made me laugh. Also his pose was ludicrously suggestive of Napoleon reviewing the armies of France.
Our column's first rank moved by him. I expected it to continue ahead through the door and into the open air, as I had myself done in going from les douches to le cour; but it turned a sharp right and then sharp left, and I perceived a short hall, almost hidden by the stairs. In a moment I had passed the Fencer myself and entered the hall. In another moment I was in a room, pretty nearly square, filled with rows of pillars. On turning into the hall the column had come almost to a standstill. I saw now that the reason for this slowing-down lay in the fact that on entering the room every man in turn passed a table and received a piece of bread from the chef. When B. and I came opposite the table the dispenser of bread smiled pleasantly and nodded to B., then selected a large hunk and pushed it rapidly into B.'s hands with an air of doing something which be shouldn't. B. introduced me, whereupon the smile and selection was repeated.
'He thinks I'm a German,' B. explained in a whisper, 'and that you are a German too.' Then aloud, to the cook: 'My friend here needs a spoon. He just got here this morning and they haven't given him one.'
The excellent person at the bread table hereupon said to me: 'You shall go to the window and say I tell you to ask for spoon and you will catch one spoon'---and I broke through the waiting line, approached the kitchen-window, and demanded of a roguish face within:
'Une cuillère, s'il vous plait?
The roguish face, which had been singing in a high faint voice to itself, replied critically but not unkindly:
'Vous êtes un nouveau?
I said that I was, that I had arrived late last night.
It disappeared, reappeared, and handed me a tin spoon and cup, saying:
'Vous n'avez pas de tasse?'---'Non,' I said.
'Tiens. Prends ça. vite.' Nodding in the direction of the Surveillant, who was standing all this time on the stairs behind me.
I had expected from the cook's phrase that something would be thrown at me which I should have to catch, and was accordingly somewhat relieved at the true state of affairs. On re-entering the salle à manger I was greeted by many cries and wavings, and looking in their direction perceived tout le monde uproariously seated at wooden benches which were placed on either side of an enormous wooden table. There was a tiny gap in one bench where a place had been saved for me by B. with the assistance of Monsieur Auguste, Count Bragard, Harree and several other fellow-convicts. In a moment I had straddled the bench and was occupying the gap, spoon and cup in hand, and ready for anything.
The din was perfectly terrific. It had a minutely large quality. Here and there, in a kind of sonal darkness, solid sincere unintelligible absurd wisps of profanity heavily flickered. Optically the phenomenon was equally remarkable: seated waggingly swaying corpse-like figures, swaggering, pounding with their little spoons, roaring hoarse unkempt. Evidently Monsieur le Surveillant had been forgotten. All at once the roar bulged unbearably. The roguish man, followed by the chef himself, entered with a suffering waddle, each of them bearing a huge bowl of steaming something. At least six people immediately rose, gesturing and imploring: 'Ici'---'Mais non, ici'--'Mettez le ici---'
The bearers plumped their burdens carefully down, one at the head of the table and one in the middle. The men opposite the bowls stood up. Every man seized the empty plate in front of him and shoved it into his neighbour's hand; the plates moved toward the bowls, were filled amid uncouth protestations and accusations---'Mettez plus que ça'---'C'est pas juste, alors'---'Donnez-moi encore des pommes'---'Nom de Dieu, il n'y en a pas assez'---Cochon, qu'est-ce qu'il veut?'---'Shut up'---'Gottverdummer'---and returned one by one. As each man received his own, he fell upon it with a sudden guzzle. Eventually, in front of me, solemnly sat a faintly-smoking urine-coloured circular broth, in which soggily hung half-suspendcd slabs of raw potato. Following the example of my neighbours, I too addressed myself to La Soupe. I found her luke-warm, completely flavourless. I examined the hunk of bread. It was almost bluish in colour; in taste mouldy, slightly sour. 'If you crumb some into the soup,' remarked B., who had been studying my reactions from the corner of his eye, 'they both taste better.' I tried the experiment. It was a complete success. At least one felt as if one were getting nourishment. Between gulps I smelled the bread furtively. It smelled rather much like an old attic in which kites and other toys gradually are forgotten in a gentle darkness.
B. and I were finishing our soup together when behind and somewhat to the left there came the noise of a lock being manipulated. I turned and saw in one corner of the salle à manger a little door, shaking mysteriously. Finally it was thrown open, revealing a sort of minute bar and a little closet filled with what appeared to be groceries and tobacco; and behind the bar, standing in the closet, a husky competent-looking lady. 'It's the canteen,' B. said. We rose, spoon in hand and breadhunk stuck on spoon, and made our way to the lady. I had, naturally, no money; but B. reassured me that before the day was over I should see the Gestionnaire and make arrangements for drawing on the supply of ready cash which the gendarmes who took me from Gré bad confided to the Surveillant's care; eventually I could also draw on my account with Norton-Harjes in Paris; meantime he had quelques sous which might well go into chocolat and cigarettes. The large lady had a pleasant quietness about her, a sort of simplicity, which made me extremely desirous of complying with B.'s suggestion. Incidentally I was feeling somewhat uncertain in the region of the stomach, due to the unique quality of the lunch which I had just enjoyed, and I brightened at the thought of anything as solid as chocolat. Accordingly we purchased (or rather B. did) a paquet jaune and a cake of something which was not Menier. And the remaining sous we squandered on a glass apiece of red acrid pinard, gravely and with great happiness pledging the hostess of the occasion and then each other.
With the exception of ourselves hardly anyone patronized the canteen, noting which I felt somewhat conspicuous. When, however, Harree, Pompom and John the Bathman came rushing up and demanded cigarettes my fears were dispelled. Moreover the pinard was excellent.
'Come on! Arrange yourselves!' the bull-neck cried hoarsely as the five of us were lighting up; and we joined the line of fellow-prisoners with their breads and spoons, gaping, belching, trumpeting fraternally, by the doorway.
'Tout le monde en haut!' this planton roared.
Slowly we fled through the tiny hall, past the stairs (empty now of their Napoleonic burden), down the corridor, up the creaking, gnarled, damp flights, and (after the inevitable pause in which the escort rattled chains and locks) into The Enormous Room.
This would be about ten-thirty.
Just what I tasted, did, smelled, saw and heard, not to mention touched, between ten-thirty and the completion of the evening meal (otherwise the four-o'clock soup) I am quite at a loss to say. 'Whether it was that glass of pinard (plus or rather times the astonishing exhaustion bequeathed me by my journey of the day before) which caused me to enter temporarily the gates of forgetfulness, or whether the sheer excitement attendant upon my ultra-novel surroundings proved too much for an indispensable part of my so-called mind---I do not in the least know. I am fairly certain that I went on afternoon promenade. After which I must surely have mounted to await my supper in The Enormous Room. Whence (after the due and proper interval) I doubtless descended to the clutches of La Soupe Extraordinaire ... yes, for I perfectly recall the cry which made me suddenly to re-enter the dimension of distinctness ... and, by Jove, I had just finished a glass of pinard ... when we heard---
'A la promenade,'. . . we issued en queue, firmly grasping our spoons and bread, through the dining-room door. Turning right we were emitted, by the door opposite the kitchen, from the building itself into the open air. A few steps and we passed through the little gate in the barb-wire fence of the cour.
Greatly refreshed by my second introduction to the canteen, and with the digestion of the somewhat extraordinary evening meal apparently assured, I gazed almost intelligently around me. Count Bragard had declined the evening promenade in favour of The Enormous Room, but I perceived in the crowd the now familiar faces of the three Hollanders---John, Harree and Pompom---likewise of The Bear, Monsieur Auguste, and Fritz. In the course of the next hour I had become, if not personally, at least optically, acquainted with nearly a dozen others.
One was a queer-looking, almost infantile man of perhaps thirty-five who wore a black vest, a pair of threadbare pants, a collarless striped shirt open at the neck with a gold stud therein, a cap slightly too large pulled down so that the visor almost hid his prominent eyebrows if not his tiny eyes, and something approximating sneakers. His expression was imitative and vacant. He stuck to Fritz most of the time, and took pains---when a girt leaned from her window---to betray a manliness of demeanour which contrasted absurdly with his mentor's naturally athletic bearing. He tried to speak (and evidently thought he spoke) English, or rather English words; but with the exception of a few obscenities pronounced in a surprisingly natural manner his vocabulary gave him considerable difficulty. Even when he and Fritz exchanged views, as they frequently did, in Danish, a certain linguistic awkwardness persisted; yielding the impression that to give or receive an idea entailed a tremendous effort of the intelligence. He was extremely vain, and indeed struck poses whenever he got a chance. He was also good-natured---stupidly so. It might be said of him that he never knew defeat; since if, after staggering a few moments under the weight of the bar which Fritz raised and lowered with ease fourteen times under the stimulus of a female gaze, the little man fell suddenly to earth with his burden, not a trace of discomfiture could be seen upon his small visage---he seemed, on the contrary, well pleased with himself, and the subsequent pose which his small body adopted demanded congratulations. When he stuck his chest up or out, he looked a trifle like a bantam rooster. When he tagged Fritz he resembled a rather brittle monkey, a monkey on a stick perhaps, capable of brief and stiff antics. His name was Jan.
On the huge beam of iron, sitting somewhat beautifully all by himself, I noticed somebody with pink cheeks and blue eyes, in a dark suit of neatly kept clothes, with a small cap on his head. His demeanour, in contrast to the other occupants of the cour, was noticeably inconspicuous. In his poise lived an almost brilliant quietness. His eyes were remarkably sensitive. They were apparently anxious not to see people and things. He impressed me at once by a shyness which was completely deerlike. Possibly he was afraid. Nobody knew him or anything about him. I do not remember when we devised the name, but B. and I referred to him as The Silent Man.
Somewhat overawed by the animals Harree and Pompom (but nevertheless managing to overawe a goodly portion of his fellow-captives), an extraordinary human being paced the cour. On gazing for the first time directly at him I experienced a feeling of nausea. A figure inclined to corpulence, dressed with care, remarkable only above the neck---and then what a head! It was large, and had a copious mop of limp hair combed back from the high forehead-hair of a, disagreeable blonde tint, dutch-cut behind, falling over the pinkish soft neck almost to the shoulders. In this pianist's or artist's hair, which shook en masse when the owner walked, two large and outstanding and altogether brutal white ears tried to hide themselves. The face, a cross between classic Greek and Jew, had a Reynard expression, something distinctly wily and perfectly disagreeable. And equally with the hair blonde moustache---or rather moustachios projectingly important---waved beneath the prominent nostrils, and served to partially conceal the pallid mouth, weak and large, whose lips assumed from time to time a smile which had something almost foetal about it. Over the even weaker chin was disposed a blonde goatee. The cheeks were fatty. The continually perspiring forehead exhibited innumerable pinkish pock-marks. In conversing with a companion this being emitted a disgusting smoothness, his very gestures were oily like his skin. He wore a pair of bloated wristless hands, the knuckles lost in fat, with which he smoothed. the air from time to time. He was speaking low and effortless French, completely absorbed in the developing ideas which issued fluently from his moustachios. About him there clung an aura of cringing. His hair, whiskers and neck looked as if they were trick neck, whiskers and hair, as if they might at any moment suddenly disintegrate, as if the smoothness of his eloquence alone kept them in place.
We called him Judas.
Beside him, clumsily keeping the pace but not the step, was a tallish effeminate person whose immaculate funereal suit hung loosely upon an aged and hurrying anatomy. He wore a black big cap on top of his haggard and remarkably clean-shaven face, the most prominent feature of which was a red nose which sniffed a little now and then as if its owner was suffering from a severe cold. This person emanated age, neatness and despair. Aside from the nose, which compelled immediate attention, his face consisted of a few large planes loosely juxtaposed and registering pathos. His motions were without grace. He had a certain refinement. He could not have been more than forty-five. There was worry on every inch of him. Possibly he thought that he might die. B. said, 'He's a Belgian, a friend of Count Bragard, and his name is Monsieur Pet-airs.' From time to time Monsieur Petairs remarked something delicately and pettishly in a gentle and weak voice. His Adam's-apple, at such moments, jumped about in a longish, slack, wrinkled, skinny neck which was like the neck of a turkey. To this turkey the approach of Thanksgiving inspired dread. From time to time M. Petairs looked about him sidewise as if he expected to see a hatchet. His hands were claws, kind, awkward and nervous. They twitched. The bony and wrinkled things looked as if they would like to close quickly upon a throat.
B. called my attention to a figure squatting in the middle of the cour with his broad back against one of the more miserable trees. This figure was clothed in a remarkably picturesque manner- it wore a dark sombrerolike hat with a large drooping brim, a bright red gipsy shirt of some remarkably fine material with huge sleeves loosely falling, and baggy corduroy trousers whence escaped two brown shapely naked feet. On moving a little I discovered a face---perhaps the handsomest face that I have ever seen, of a gold brown colour, framed in an amazingly large and beautiful black beard. The features were finely formed and almost fluent, the eyes soft and extraordinarily sensitive, the mouth delicate and firm beneath a black moustache which fused with the silky and wonderful darkness falling upon the breast. The face contained a beauty and dignity which, as I first saw it, annihilated the surrounding tumult without an effort. Around the carefully formed nostrils there was something almost of contempt. The cheeks had known suns of which I might not think. The feet had travelled nakedly in countries not easily imagined. Seated gravely in the mud and noise of the cour, under the pitiful and scraggly pommier ... behind the eyes lived a world of complete strangeness and silence. The composure of the body was graceful and Jove-like. This being might have been a prophet come out of a country nearer to the sun. Perhaps a god who bad lost his road and allowed himself to be taken prisoner by le gouvernement français. At least a prince of a dark and desirable country, a king over a gold-skinned people, who would return when he wished to his fountains and his houris. I learned upon inquiry that he travelled in various countries with a horse and cart and his wife and children, selling bright colours to the women and men of these countries. As it turned out, he was one of The Delectable Mountains; to discover which I had come a long and difficult way. Wherefore I shall tell you no more about him for the present, except that his name was Joseph Demestre.
We called him The Wanderer.
I was still wondering at my good luck in occupying the same miserable yard with this exquisite personage when a hoarse, rather thick voice shouted from the gate: 'L'américain!'
It was a planton, in fact the chief planton for whom all ordinary plantons had unutterable respect and whom all mere men unutterably hated. It was the planton into whom I had had the distinguished honour of bumping shortly after my visit to le bain.
The Hollanders and Fritz were at the gate in a mob, all shouting 'Which' in four languages.
This planton did not deign to notice them. He repeated roughly 'L'américain.' Then, yielding a point to their frenzied entreaties: 'Le nouveau.'
B. said to me, 'Probably he's going to take you to the Gestionnaire. You're supposed to see him when you arrive. He's got your money and will keep it for you, and give you an allowance twice a week. You can't draw more than 20 francs. I'll hold your bread and spoon.'
'Where the devil is the American?' cried the planton.
I followed his back and rump and holster through the little gate in the barbed-wire fence and into the building, at which point he commanded 'Proceed.'
I asked "Where?'
'Straight ahead,' he said angrily.
I Proceeded. 'Left!' he cried. I turned. A door confronted me. 'Entrez,' he commanded. I did. An unremarkable-looking gentleman in a French uniform, sitting at a sort of table. 'Monsieur le médecin, le nouveau.' The doctor got up. 'Open your shirt.' I did. 'Take down your pants.' I did. 'All right.' Then, as the planton was about to escort me from the room: 'English?' he asked with curiosity. 'No,' I said, 'American.' 'Vraiment'---he contemplated me with attention. 'South American are you?' 'United States,' I explained. 'Vraiment'---he looked curiously at me, not disagreeably in the least. 'Pourquoi vous êstes ici?' 'I don't know,' I said, smiling pleasantly, 'except that my friend wrote some letters which were intercepted by the French censor.' 'Ah!' he remarked. 'C'est tout.'
And I departed. 'Proceed!' cried the Black Holster. I retraced my steps, and was about to exit through the door leading to the cour, when 'Stop! Nom de Dien! Proceed!'
I asked 'Where?' completely bewildered.
'Up,' he said angrily.
I turned to the stairs on the left, and climbed.
'Not so fast there,' he roared behind me.
I slowed up. We reached the landing. I was sure that the Gestionnaire was a very fierce man---probably a lean slight person who would rush at me from the nearest door, saying 'Hands up' in French, whatever that may be. The door opposite me stood open. I looked in. There was the Surveillant standing, hands behind back, approvingly regarding my progress. I was asking myself, Should I bow? when a scurrying and a tittering made me look left, along a dark and particularly dirty hall. Women's voices ... I almost fell with surprise. Were not these shadows faces peering a little boldly at me from doors? How many girls were there---it sounded as if there were a hundred.
'Qu'est-ce que vous foutez,' etc., and the planton gave me a good shove in the direction of another flight of stairs. I obligingly ascended; thinking of the Surveillant as a spider, elegantly poised in the centre of his nefarious web, waiting for a fly to make too many struggles....
At the top of this flight I was confronted by a second hall. A shut door indicated the existence of a being directly over the Surveillant's holy head. Upon this door, lest I should lose time in speculating, was in ample letters inscribed:
I felt unutterably lost. I approached the door. I even started to push it.
'Attends, Nom de Dieu.' The planton gave me another shove, faced the door, knocked twice, and cried in accents of profound respect: 'Monsieur le Gestionnaire'---after which he gazed at me with really supreme contempt, his neat pig-like face becoming almost circular.
I said to myself: This Gestionnaire, whoever he is, must be a very terrible' person, a frightful person, a person utterly without mercy.
From within a heavy, stupid, pleasant voice lazily remarked:
The planton threw the door open, stood stiffly on the threshold, and gave me the look which plantons give to eggs when plantons are a little hungry.
I crossed the threshold, trembling with (let us hope) anger.
Before me, seated at a table, was a very fat personage with a black skull-cap perched upon its head. Its face was possessed of an enormous nose, on which pince-nez precariously roosted; otherwise said face was large, whiskered, very German and had three chins. Extraordinary creature. Its belly, as it sat, was slightly dented by the table-top, on which table-top rested several enormous tomes similar to those employed by the recording angel on the Day of Judgement, an ink-stand or two, innumerable pens and pencils, and some positively fatal-looking papers. The person was dressed in worthy and semi-dismal clothes amply cut to afford a promenade for the big stomach. The coat was of that extremely thin black material which occasionally is affected by clerks and dentists and more often by librarians. If ever I looked upon an honest German jowl, or even upon a caricature thereof, I looked upon one now. Such a round, fat, red, pleasant, beer-drinking face as reminded me only and immediately of huge meerschaum pipes, Deutsche Verein mottos, sudsy seidels of Wurtzburger, and Jacob Wirth's (once upon a time) brachwurst. Such pin-like pink merry eyes as made me think of Kris Kringle himself. Such extraordinarily huge reddish hands as might have grasped six seidels together in the Deutsche Küche on 13th Street. I gasped with pleasurable relief.
Monsieur le Gestionnaire looked as if he was trying very hard, with the aid of his beribboned glasses and librarian's jacket (not to mention a very ponderous gold watch-ch--ain and locket that were supported by his copious equator), to appear possessed of the solemnity necessarily emanating from his lofty and responsible office. This solemnity, however, met its Waterloo in his frank and stupid eyes, not to say his trilogy of cheerful chins-so much so that I felt like crying "Wie gehts!' and cracking him on his huge back. Such an animal! A contented animal, a bulbous animal; the only living hippopotamus in captivity, fresh from the Nile.
He contemplated me with a natural, under the circumstances, curiosity. He even naively contemplated me. As if I were bay. My hay-coloured head perhaps pleased him, as a hippopotamus. He would perhaps eat me. He grunted, exposing tobacco-yellow tusks, and his tiny eyes twittered. Finally he gradually uttered, with a thick accent, the following extremely impressive dictum:
I felt much pleased, and said, 'Oui, j'suis américain, Monsieur.'
He rolled half over backwards in his creaking chair with wonderment at such an unexpected retort. He studied my face with a puzzled air, appearing slightly embarrassed that before him should stand l'américain and that l'américain should admit it, and that it should all be so wonderfully clear. I saw a second dictum, even more profound than the first, ascending from his black vest. The chain and fob trembled with anticipation. I was wholly fascinated. What vast blob of wisdom would find its difficult way out of him? The bulbous lips wiggled in a pleasant smile.
'Voo parlez français.'
This was delightful. The planton behind me was obviously angered by the congenial demeanour of Monsieur le Gestionnaire, and rasped with his boot upon the threshold. The maps to my right and left, maps of France, maps of the Mediterranean, of Europe even, were abashed. A little anæmic and humble biped whom I had not previously noted, as he stood in one corner with a painfully deferential expression, looked all at once relieved. I guessed, and correctly guessed, that this little thing was the translator of La Ferté. His weak face wore glasses of the same type as the hippopotamus's, but without a huge black ribbon. I decided to give him a tremor; and said to the hippo, 'Un peu, Monsieur,' at which the little thing looked sickly.
The hippopotamus benevolently remarked, 'Voo parlez bien,' and his glasses fell off. He turned to the watchful planton:
'Voo poovez aller. Je vooz appelerai.'
The watchful planton did a sort of salute and closed the door after him. The skull-capped dignitary turned to his papers and began mouthing them with his huge hands, grunting pleasantly. Finally he found one, and said lazily:
'De quel endroit que vous êtes?
'De Massachusetts,' said I.
He wheeled round and stared dumbly at the weak-faced one, who looked at a complete loss, but managed to stammer simperingly that it was a. part of the United States.
'UH.' The hippopotamus said.
Then he remarked that I had been arrested, and I agreed that I had been arrested.
Then he said: 'Have you got any money?' and before I could answer clambered heavily to his feet and, leaning over the table before which I stood, punched me gently.
'Uh,' said the hippopotamus, sat down, and put on his glasses.
I have your money here,' he said. 'You are allowed to draw a little from time to time. You may draw 20 francs, if you like. You may draw it twice a week.'
I should like to draw 20 francs now,' I said, 'in order to buy something at the canteen.'
'You will give me a receipt,' said the hippopotamus. 'You want to draw 20 francs now, quite so.' He began, puffing and grunting, to make handwriting of a peculiarly large and somewhat loose variety.
The weak face now stepped forward, and asked me gently: 'Hugh er a merry can?'---so I carried on a brilliant conversation in pidgin-English about my relatives and America until interrupted by:
The hip had finished.
'Sign your name here,' he said, and I did. He looked about in one of the tomes and checked something opposite my name, which I enjoyed seeing in the list of inmates. It had been spelled, erased, and re-spelled several times.
Monsieur le Gestionnaire contemplated my signature. Then he looked up, smiled, and nodded recognition to some one behind me. I turned. There stood (having long since noiselessly entered) the Fencer Himself, nervously clasping and unclasping his hands behind his back and regarding me with approval, or as a keeper regards some rare monkey newly forwarded from its habitat by Hagenbeck.
The hip pulled out a drawer. He found, after hunting, some notes. He counted two off, licking his big thumb with a pompous gesture, and having recounted them passed them heavily to me. I took them as a monkey takes a coco-nut.
'Do you wish?'---the Gestionnaire nodded toward me, addressing the Fencer.
'No, no,' the Fencer said bowingly. 'I have talked to him already.'
'Call that planton!' cried Monsieur le Gestionnaire, to the little thing. The little thing ran out dutifully and called in a weak voice 'Planton!'
A gruff but respectful 'Oui' boomed from below-stairs. In a moment the planton of plantons had respectfully entered.
'The promenade being over, you can take him to the men's room,' said the Surveillant, as the hippo (immensely relieved and rather proud of himself) collapsed in his creaking chair.
Feeling like a suit-case in the clutches of a porter, I obediently preceded my escort down two flights, first having bowed to the hippopotamus and said 'Merci'---to which courtesy the Hippo paid no attention. As we went along the dank hall on the ground floor, I regretted that no whispers and titters bad greeted my descent. Probably the furious planton had seen to it that les femmes kept their rooms in silence: 'We ascended the three flights at the farther end of the corridor, the planton of all plantons unlocked and unbolted the door at the top landing, and I was swallowed by The Enormous Room.
I made for B., in my excitement allowing myself to wave the bank-notes. Instantly a host had gathered at my side. On my way to my bed---a distance of perhaps thirty feet---I was patted on the back by Harree, Pompom and Bathhouse John, congratulated by Monsieur Auguste, and saluted by Fritz. Arriving, I found myself the centre of a stupendous crowd. People who had previously had nothing to say to me, who had even sneered at my unwashed and unshaven exterior, now addressed me in terms of more than polite interest. Judas himself stopped in a promenade of the room, eyed me a moment, hastened smoothly to my vicinity, and made a few oily remarks of a pleasant nature. Simultaneously by Monsieur Auguste, Harree and Fritz I was advised to hide my money and hide it well. There were people, you know ... who didn't hesitate, you understand ... I understood, and to the vast disappointment of the clamorous majority reduced my wealth to its lowest terms and crammed it in my trousers, stuffing several trifles of a bulky nature on top of it. Then I gazed quietly around with a William S. Hart expression calculated to allay any undue excitement. One by one the curious and enthusiastic faded from me, and I was left with the few whom I already considered my friends; with which few B. and myself proceeded to while away the time remaining before Lumières Eteintes.
Incidentally, I exchanged (in the course of the next two hours) a considerable mass of two-legged beings for a number of extremely interesting individuals. Also, in that somewhat limited period of time, I gained all sorts of highly enlightening information concerning the lives, habits and likes of half a dozen of as fine companions as it has ever been my luck to meet or, so far as I can now imagine, ever will be. In prison one learns several million things---if one is l'américain from Mass-a-chu-setts. When the ominous and awe-inspiring rattle on the farther side of the locked door announced that the captors were come to bid the captives good night, I was still in the midst of conversation and had been around the world a number of times. At the clanking sound our little circle centripetally disintegrated, as if by sheer magic: and I was left somewhat dizzily to face a renewal of reality.
The door shot wide. The planton's almost indistinguishable figure in the doorway told me that the entire room was dark. I had not noticed the darkness. Somebody had placed a candle (which I recalled having seen on a table in the middle of the room when I looked up once or twice during the conversation) on a little shelf bard by the cabinet. There had been men playing at cards by this candle now everybody was quietly reposing upon the floor along three sides of The Enormous Room. The planton entered. 'Walked over to the light. Said something about everybody being present, and was answered by a number of voices in a more or less profane affirmative. Strutted to and fro, kicked the cabinet, flashed an electric torch, and walked up the room examining each paillasse to make sure it had an occupant. Crossed the room at the upper end. Started down on my side. The white circle was in my eyes. The planton stopped. I stared stupidly and wearily into the glare. The light moved all over me and my bed. The rough voice behind the glare said:
'Vous êtes le nouveau?'
Monsieur Auguste, from my left, said quietly:
'Oui, c'est le nouveau.`
The holder of the torch grunted, and (after pausing a second at B.'s bed to inspect a picture of perfect innocence) banged out through the door, which whanged to behind him and another planton of whose presence I had been hitherto unaware. A perfect symphony of 'Bonne-nuit's'., 'Dormez-bien's' and other affectionate admonitions greeted the exeunt of the authorities. They were advised by various parts of the room in divers tongues to dream of their wives, to be careful of themselves in bed, to avoid catching cold, and to attend to a number of personal wants before retiring. The symphony gradually collapsed, leaving me sitting in a state of complete wonderment, dead tired and very happy, upon my paillasse.
'I think I'll turn in,' I said to the neighbouring darkness.
'That's what I'm doing,' B.'s voice said.
'By God,' I said, 'this is the finest place I've ever been in my life.'
'It's the finest place in the world,' said B.'s voice.
'Thank Heaven, we're out of A.'s way and the 'Section Sanitaire,' I grunted as I placed my boots where a pillow might have been imagined.
'Amen,' B.'s voice said.
'Si vous met-tez vos chaus-sures en des-sous de la paillasse, , Monsieur Auguste's voice said, 'vous al-lez bien dor-mir.,
I thanked him for the suggestion, and did so. I reclined in an ecstasy of happiness and weariness. There could be nothing better than this. To sleep.
'Got a gottverdummer cigarette?' Harree's voice asked of Fritz.
'No bloody fear,' Fritz's voice replied coolly.
Snores had already begun in various keys at various distances in various directions. The candle flickered a little, as if darkness and itself were struggling to the death, and darkness were winning.
'I'll get a chew from John,' Harree's voice said.
Three or four paillasses away, a subdued conversation was proceeding. I found myself listening sleepily.
'Et puis,' a voice said, 'je suis réformé . . .'
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