WITH the reader's permission I beg, at this point of my narrative, to indulge in one or two extrinsic observations.
In the preceding pages I have described my Pilgrim's Progress from the Slough of Despond, commonly known as Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un (then located at Germaine) through the mysteries of Noyon, Gré and Paris to the Porte de Triage de La Ferté Macé, Orne. With the end of my first day as a certified inhabitant of the latter institution a definite progression is brought to a close. Beginning with my second day at La Ferté a new period opens. This period extends to the moment of my departure and includes the discovery of The Delectable Mountains, two of which---The 'Wanderer, and I shall not say the other---have already been sighted. It is like a vast grey box in which are laid helter-skelter a great many toys, each of which is itself completely significant apart from the always unchanging temporal dimension which merely contains it along with the rest. I make this point clear for the benefit of any of my readers who have not had the distinguished privilege of being in jail. To those who have been in jail my meaning is at once apparent; particularly if they have had the highly enlightening experience of being in jail with a perfectly indefinite sentence. How, in such a case, could events occur and be remembered otherwise than as individualities distinct from Time Itself? Or, since one day and the next are the same to such a prisoner, where does Time come in at all? Obviously, once the prisoner is habituated to his environment, once he accepts the fact that speculation as to when he will regain his liberty cannot possibly shorten the hours of his incarceration and may very well drive him into a state of unhappiness (not to say morbidity), events can no longer succeed each other: whatever happens, while it may happen in connection with some other perfectly distinct happening, does not happen in a scale of temporal priorities---each happening is self-sufficient, irrespective of minutes, months and the other treasures of freedom.
It is for this reason that I do not purpose to inflict upon the reader a diary of my alternative aliveness and nonexistence at La Ferté---not because such a diary would unutterably bore him, but because the diary or time method is a technique which cannot possibly do justice to timelessness. I shall (on the contrary) lift from their grey box at random certain (to me) more or less astonishing toys; which may or may not please the reader, but whose colours and shapes and textures are a part of that actual Present---without future and past-whereof they alone are cognizant who, so to speak, have submitted to an amputation of the world.
I have already stated that La Ferté was a Porte de Triage ---that is to say, a place where suspects of all varieties were herded by le gouvernement français preparatory to their being judged as to their guilt by a Commission. If the Commission found that they were wicked persons, or dangerous persons, or undesirable persons, or puzzling persons, or persons in some way insusceptible of analysis, they were sent from La Ferté to a 'regular' prison, called Précigné, in the province of Sarthe. About Précigné the most awful rumours were spread. It was whispered that it had a huge moat about it, with an infinity of barbed-wire fences thirty feet high, and lights trained on the walls all night to discourage the escape of prisoners. Once in Précigné you were 'in' for good and all, pour la durée de la guerre, which durée was a subject of occasional and dismal speculation---occasional for reasons (as I have mentioned) of mental health; dismal for unreasons of diet, privation, filth, and other trifles. La Ferté was, then, a stepping-stone either to freedom or to Précigné, the chances in the former case being---no speculation here---something less than the now celebrated formula made famous by the 18th amendment. But the excellent and inimitable and altogether benignant French government was not satisfied with its own generosity in presenting one merely with Précigné---beyond that lurked a cauchemar called by the singularly poetic name, Isle de Groix. A man who went to Isle de Groix was done.
As the Surveillant said to us all, leaning out of a littlish window, and to me personally upon occasion
'You are not prisoners. Oh, no. No indeed. I should say not. Prisoners are not treated like this. You are lucky.'
I had de la chance all right, but that was something which pauvre M. le Surveillant wot altogether not of. As for my fellow-prisoners, I am sorry to say that he was---it seems to my humble personality---quite wrong. For who was eligible to La Ferté? Anyone whom the police could find in the lovely country of France (a) who was not guilty of treason, (b) who could not prove that he was not guilty of treason. By treason I refer to any little annoying habits of independent thought or action which en temps de guerre are put in a hole and covered over, with the somewhat naïve idea that from their cadavers violets will grow whereof the perfume will delight all good men and true and make such worthy citizens forget their sorrows. Fort Leavenworth, for instance, emanates even now a perfume which is utterly delightful to certain Americans. Just how many La Fertés France boasted (and for all I know may still boast) God Himself knows. At least, in that Republic, amnesty has been proclaimed, or so I hear.---But to return to the Surveillant's remark.
J'avais de la chance. Because I am by profession a painter and a writer. 'Whereas my very good friends, all of them deeply suspicious characters, most of them traitors, without exception lucky to have the use of their cervical vertebræ, etc., etc., could (with a few exceptions) write not a word and read not a word; neither could they faire la photographie as Monsieur Auguste chucklingly called it (at which I blushed with pleasure): worst of all, the majority of these dark criminals who bad been caught in nefarious plots against the honour of France were totally unable to speak French. Curious thing. Often I pondered the unutterable and inextinguishable wisdom of the police, who---undeterred by facts which would have deceived less astute intelligences into thinking that these men were either too stupid or too simple to be connoisseurs of the art of betrayal---swooped upon their helpless prey with that indescribable courage which is the prerogative of policemen the world over, and bundled same prey into the La Fertés of that mighty nation upon some, at least, of whose public buildings it seems to me that I remember reading
And I wondered that France should have a use for Monsieur Auguste, who had been arrested (because he was a Russian) when his fellow munition workers made la grève, and whose wife wanted him in Paris because she was hungry and because their child was getting to look queer and white. Monsieur Auguste, that desperate ruffian exactly five feet tall who---when he could not keep from crying (one must think about one's wife or even one's child once or twice, I merely presume, if one loves them) 'et ma femme est très gen-tille, elle est fran-çaise et très belle, très, très belle, vrai-ment elle n'est pas comme moi, ---un pe-tit homme laid, ma femme est grande et belle, elle sait bien lire et écrire, vrai-ment; et notre fils ... vous de-vez voir notre pe-tit fils . . .'----used to, start up and cry out, taking B. by one arm and me by the other:
'Al-lons, mes amis! Chan-tons "Quackquackquack."' Whereupon we would join in the following song, which Monsieur Auguste had taught us with great care, and whose renditions gave him unspeakable delight:
'Un canard, déployant ses ailes
II disait à sa canarde fidèle
Il chantait (Quackquackquack)
Il faisait (Quackquackquack)
....Quand' (spelling mine)
'finirons nos desseins,
I suppose I will always puzzle over the ecstasies of That Wonderful Duck. And how Monsieur Auguste, the merest gnome of a man, would bend backwards in absolute laughter at this song's spirited conclusion upon a note so low as to wither us all.
Then too the Schoolmaster.
A little fragile old man. His trousers were terrifically too big for him. When he walked (in an insecure and frightened way) his trousers did the most preposterous wrinkles. If he leaned against a tree in the cour, with a very old and also fragile pipe in his pocket---the stem (which looked enormous in contrast to the owner) protruding therefrom---his three-sizes-too-big collar would leap out so as to make his wizened neck appear no thicker than the white necktie which flowed upon his two-sizes-too-big shirt. He wore always a coat which reached below his knees, which coat with which knees perhaps some one had once given him. It had huge shoulders which sprouted, like wings, on either side of his elbows when he sat in The Enormous Room quietly writing at a tiny three-legged table, a very big pen walking away with his weak bony hand. His too big cap had a little button on top which looked like the head of a nail, and suggested that this old doll had once lost its poor grey head and had been repaired by means of tacking its head upon its neck, where it should be and properly belonged. Of what hideous crime was this being suspected? By some mistake he had three moustaches, two of them being eyebrows. He used to teach school in Alsace-Lorraine, and his sister is there. In speaking to you his kind face is peacefully reduced to triangles. And his tie buttons on every morning with a Bang! And off he goes; led about by his celluloid collar, gently worried about himself, delicately worried about the world. At eating time he looks sidelong as he stuffs soup into stiff lips. There are two holes where cheeks might have been. Lessons hide in his wrinkles. Bells ding in the oldness of eyes. Did he, by any chance, tell the children that there are such monstrous things as peace and goodwill ... a corrupter of youth, no doubt ... he is altogether incapable of anger, wholly timid and tintinnabulous. And he had always wanted so much to know---if there were wild horses in America?
Yes, probably the Schoolmaster was a notorious seditionist. The all-wise French government has its ways, which, like the ways of God, are wonderful. But how about. Emile?
Emile the Bum. Is the reader acquainted with the cartoons of Mr. F. Opper? If not, he cannot properly relish this personage. Emile the Bum was a man of thought. In chasing his legs, his trousers seat scoots intriguingly up-and-to-the-side. How often, Emile the Bum, après la soupe, have I ascended behind thee; going slowly up and up and up the miserable stairs behind thy pants' timed slackness. Emile possesses a scarf which he winds about his ample thighs, thereby connecting his otherwise elusively independent trousers with that very important individual---his stomach. His face is unshaven. He is unshorn. Like all Belgians, he has a quid in his gums night and day, which quid he buys outside in the town; for in his capacity of Somethingorother (perhaps assistant sweeper) he journeys (under proper surveillance) occasionally from the gates which unthoughtful men may not leave. His F. Opper soul peeps from slippery little eyes. Having entered an argument---be its subject the rights of humanity, the price of potatoes, or the wisdom of warfare---Emile the Bum sticks to his theme and his man. He is, curiously enough, above all things sincere. He is almost treacherously sincere. Having argued a man to a standstill and won from him an abject admission of complete defeat, Emile stalks rollingly away. Upon reaching a distance of perhaps five metres he suddenly makes a rush at his victim---having turned around with the velocity of lightning, in fact so quickly that no one saw him do it;---his victim writhes anew under the lash of Emile the Bum's insatiate loquacity,---admits, confesses, begs pardon---and off Emile stalks rollingly . . .to turn again and dash back at his almost weeping opponent, thundering sputteringly with rejuvenated vigour, a vigour which annihilates everything (including reason) before it. Otherwise, considering that he is a Belgian, he is extraordinarily good-natured and minds his business rollingly and sucks his quid happily. Not a tremendously harmful individual, one would say... and why did the French Government need him behind lock and key, I wonder? It was his fatal eloquence, doubtless, which betrayed him to the clutches of La Misère. Gendarmes are sensitive in peculiar ways; they do not stand for any misleading information upon the probable destiny of the price of potatoes---since it is their duty and their privilege to resent all that is seditious to the Government, and since The Government includes the Minister of Agriculture (or something), and since the Minister of Something includes, of course, potatoes, and that means that no one is at liberty to in any way (however slightly or insinuatingly) insult a potato. I bet Emile the Bum insulted two potatoes.
We still have, however, the problem of the man in the Orange Cap. The man in the Orange Cap was, optically as well as in every other respect, delightful. Until the Zulu came (of which more later) he was a little and quietly lonely. The Zulu, however, played with him. He was always chasing the Zulu around trees in the cour; dodging, peeping, tagging him on his coat, and sometimes doing something like laughing. Before the Zulu came he was lonely because nobody would have anything to do with the little man in the Orange Cap. This was not because he had done something unpopular; on the contrary, he was perfectly well behaved. It was because he could not speak. Perhaps I should say with more accuracy that he could not articulate. This fact did not prevent the little man in the Orange Cap from being shy. When I asked him one day, what he had been arrested for, he replied GOO in the shyest manner imaginable. He was altogether delightful. Subconsciously every one was, of course, fearful that he himself would go nuts---every one with the exception of those who had already gone nuts, who were in the wholly pleasant situation of having no fear. The still sane were therefore inclined to snub and otherwise affront their luckier fellow-sufferers---unless, as in the case of Bathhouse John, the insane was fully protected by a number of unbeatable gentlemen of his own nationality. The little person was snubbed and affronted at every turn. He didn't care the littlest personal bit, beyond being quietly lonely so far as his big, blue, expressionless eyes were concerned, and keeping out of the way when fights were on. Which fights he sometimes caught himself enjoying, whereupon he would go sit under a very small apple-tree and ruminate thoroughly upon non-existence until he had sufficiently punished himself. I still don't see how the gouvernement français decided to need him in La Ferté, unless---ah! that's it ... he was really a superintelligent crook who had robbed the cabinet of the greatest cabinet-minister of the greatest cabinet-minister's cabinet papers, a crime involving the remarkable and demoralizing disclosure that President Poincaré had, the night before, been discovered in an unequal hand to hand battle with a défaitistically-minded bed-bug ... and all the apparent idiocy of the little man with the Orange Cap was a skilfully executed bluff ... and probably he was, even when I knew him, gathering evidence of a nature so derogatory as to be well-nigh unpublishable even by the disgusting Défaitiste Organ itself; evidence about the innocent and faithful plantons ... yes, now I remember, I asked him in French if it wasn't a fine day (because, as always, it was raining, and he and I alone had dared the promenade together) and he looked me straight in the eyes, and said WOO, and smiled shyly. That would seem to corroborate the theory that he was a master mind, for (obviously) the letters, W, O, O, stand for 'Wilhelm, Ober, Olles, which again is Austrian for Down With Yale. Yes, yes. Le gouvernement français was right, as always. Somebody once told me that the little person was an Austrian, and that The Silent Man was an Austrian, and that---whisper it---they were both Austrians! And that was why they were arrested; just as So-and-so (being a Turk) was naturally arrested, and So-and-so, a Pole, was inevitably naturally and of course (en temps de guerre) arrested. And me, an American; wasn't me arrested? I said Me certainly was, and Me's friend, too.
Once I did see the Orange Cap walk shyly up to The Silent Man. They looked at each other, both highly embarrassed, both perhaps conscious that they ought to say something Austrian to each other. The Silent Man looked away. The little person's face became vacant and lonely, and he tip-toed quietly back to his apple-tree.
'So-and-so, being a Turk' moved in one night, paillasse and all---having arrived from Paris on a very late train, heavily guarded by three gendarmes---to a vacant spot temporarily which separated my bed from the next bed on my right. Of the five definite and confirmed amusements which were established at La Ferté Macé---to wit, (1) spitting, (2) playing cards, (3) insulting plantons, (4) writing to the girls, and (5) fighting---I possessed a slight aptitude for the first only. By long practice, leaning with various more accomplished artists from a window and attempting to hit either the sentinel below or a projecting window-ledge or a spot of mud which, after refined and difficult intellectual exercise, we all had succeeded in agreeing upon, I had become not to be sure a master of the art of spitting but a competitor to be reckoned with so far as accuracy was concerned. Spitting in bed was not only amusing, it was---for climatic and other reasons---a necessity. The vacant place to my right made a very agreeable not to say convenient spittoon. Not every one, in fact only two or three, had my advantage. But every one had to spit at night. As I lay in bed, having for the third time spit into my spittoon, I was roused by a vision in neatly pressed pyjamas which had arisen from the darkness directly beside me. I sat up and confronted a small and, as nearly as I could make out, Jewish ghost, with sensitive eyes and an expression of mild protest centred in his talking checks. The language, said I, is Arabian---but who ever heard of an Arab in pyjamas? So I humbly apologized in French, explaining that his advent was to me as unexpected as it was pleasant. Next morning we exchanged the visiting-cards which prisoners use, that is to say he smoked one of my cigarettes and I one of his, and I learned that he was a Turk whose brother worked in Paris for a confectioner. With a very graceful and polite address he sought in his not over copious baggage and produced, to my delight and astonishment, the most delicious sweetmeats which I have ever sampled. His generosity was as striking as his refinement. We were fast friends in fifteen minutes. Of an evening, subsequently, he would sit on B.'s bed or mine and tell us about how he could not imagine that he could have been arrested; tell it with a restrained wonderment which we found extraordinarily agreeable. He was not at all annoyed when we questioned him about the Arabian, Turkish and Persian languages, and when pressed he wrote a little for us with a simplicity and elegance that were truly enchanting. I have spent many contented minutes sitting alone copying certain of these rhythmic fragments. We hinted that he might perhaps sing, at which he merely blushed as if he were remembering (or possibly dreaming of) something distant and too pleasant for utterance.
He was altogether too polite---not to have been needed at La Ferté.
In supposing that we needed a professor of dancing the French government made, perhaps, one little mistake.
I am so bold as to say this because I recall that the extraordinary being in question was with us only a short while. Whither he went the Lord knows, but he left with great cheerfulness. A vain blond boy of perhaps eighteen in blue velvet corduroy pantaloons, who wore a big sash, and exclaimed to us all in confidence:
Adding that he held at that minute 'vingt diplômes.' The Hollanders had no use for him but we rather liked him---as you would like a somewhat absurd peacock who, for some reason, lit upon the sewer in which you were living for the eternal nonce. About him I remember nothing else; save that he talked boxing with an air of bravado and addressed every one as 'mon vieux.' When he left, clutching his baggage lightly and a little pale, it was as if our dung-heap were minus a butterfly. I imagine that Monsieur Malvy was fond of collecting butterflies---until he got collected himself. Some day I must visit him, at the Santé or whatever health resort he inhabits, and (introducing myself as one of those whom he sent to La Ferté Macé) question him upon the subject.
I had almost forgotten The Bear-number two, not to be confused with the seeker of cigarette-ends. A big, shaggy person, a farmer, talked about 'mon petit jardin,' an anarchist, wrote practically all the time (to the gentle annoyance of The Schoolmaster) at the queer-legged table; wrote letters (which he read aloud with evident satisfaction to himself) addressing 'my confrères,' stimulating them to even greater efforts, telling them that the time was ripe, that the world consisted of brothers, etc. I liked The Bear. He had a sincerity which, if somewhat startlingly uncouth, was always definitely compelling. His French itself was both uncouth and startling. I hardly think he was a dangerous bear. Had I been the French government I should have let him go berrying, as a bear must and should, to his heart's content. Perhaps I liked him best for his great awkward way of presenting an idea ---he scooped it out of its environment with a hearty paw in a way which would have delighted anyone save le gouvernement français. He had, I think,
tattooed in blue and green on his big, hairy chest. A fine bear. A bear whom no twitchings at his muzzle nor any starvation or yet any beating could ever teach to dance ...but then, I am partial to bears. Of course none of this bear's letters ever got posted---Le Directeur was not that sort of person; nor did this bear ever expect that they would go elsewhere than into the official waste-basket of La Ferté, which means that he wrote because he liked to; which again means that he was essentially an artist-for which reason I liked him more than a little.. He lumbered off one day---l hope to his brier-patch, and to his children, and to his confrères, and to all things excellent and livable and highly desirable to a bruin.
The Young Russian and The Barber escaped while I was enjoying my little visit at Orne. The former was an immensely tall and very strong boy of nineteen or under, who had come to our society by way of solitary confinement, bread and water for months, and other reminders that to err is human, etc. Unlike Harree, whom if anything he exceeded in strength, he was very quiet. Every one let him alone. I 'caught water' in the town with him several times and found him an excellent companion. He taught me the Russian numerals up to ten, and was very kind to my struggles over 10 and 9. He picked up the cannon-ball one day and threw it so hard that the wall separating the men's cour from the cour des femmes shook, and a piece of stone fell off. At which the cannonball was taken away from us (to the grief of its daily wielders, Harree and Fritz) by four perspiring plantons who almost died in the performance of their highly patriotic duty. His friend, The Barber, had a little shelf in The Enormous Room, all tricked out with an astonishing array of bottles, atomisers, tonics, powders, scissors, razors and other deadly implements. It has always been a mystère to me that our captors permitted this array of obviously dangerous weapons when we were searched almost weekly for knives. Had I not been in the habit of using B.'s safety-razor I should probably have become better acquainted with The Barber. It was not his price, nor yet his technique, but the fear of contamination which made me avoid these instruments of hygiene. Not that I shaved to excess. On the contrary, the Surveillant often, nay biweekly (so soon as I began drawing certain francs from Norton Harjes) reasoned with me upon the subject of appearance; saying that I was come of a good family, that I had enjoyed (unlike my companions) an education, and that I should keep myself neat and clean and be a shining example to the filthy and ignorant---adding slyly that the 'hospital' would be an awfully nice place for me and my friend to live, and that there we could be by ourselves like gentlemen and have our meals served in the room, avoiding the salle à manger; moreover the food would be what we liked, delicious food, especially cooked ... all (quoth the Surveillant with the itching palm of a Grand Central Porter awaiting his tip) for a mere trifle or so, which if I liked I could pay him on the spot---whereat I scornfully smiled, being inhibited by a somewhat selfish regard for my own welfare from kicking him through the window. To The Barber's credit be it said: he never once solicited my trade, although the Surveillant's 'Soi-même' lectures (as B. and I referred to them) were the delight of our numerous friends and must, through them, have reached his alert ears. He was a good-looking quiet man of perhaps thirty, with razor-keen eyes---and that's about all I know of him except that one day The Young Russian and The Barber, instead of passing from the cour directly to the building, made use of a little door in an angle between the stone wall and the kitchen; and that to such good effect that we never saw them again. Nor were the ever watchful guardians of our safety, the lion-hearted plantons, aware of what had occurred until several hours after; despite the fact that a ten-foot wall had been scaled, some lesser obstructions vanquished, and a run in the open made almost (one unpatriotically-minded might be tempted to say) before their very eyes. But then---who knows? May not the French government deliberately have allowed them to escape, after---through its incomparable spy system---learning that The Barber and his young friend were about to attempt the life of the Surveillant with an atomiser brim-full of T.N.T.? Nothing could after all be more highly probable. As a matter of fact, a couple of extra-fine razors (presented by the Soi-même-minded Surveillant to the wily coiffeur in the interests of public health) as well as a knife which belonged to the cuisine and had been lent to The Barber for the purpose of peeling potatoes---he having complained that the extraordinary safety-device with which, on alternate days, we were ordinarily furnished for that purpose, was an insult to himself and his profession---vanished into the rather thick air of Orne along with The Barber lui-même. I remember him perfectly in The Enormous Room, cutting apples deliberately with his knife and sharing them with the Young Russian. The night of the escape---in order to keep up our morale---we were helpfully told that both refugees had been snitched e'er they had got well without the limits of the town, and been remanded to a punishment consisting, among other things, in travaux forcés à perpétuité---verbum sapientibus, he that hath ears, etc. Also a nightly inspection was instituted; consisting of our being counted thrice by a planton, who then divided the total by 3 and vanished.
Soi-même reminds me of a pleasant spirit who graced our little company with a good deal of wit and elegance. He was called by B. and myself, after a somewhat exciting incident which I must not describe but rather outline, by the agreeable title of Même le Balayeur. Only a few days after my arrival the incident in question happened. it seems (I was in la cour promenading for the afternoon) that certain more virile inhabitants of The Enormous Room, among them Harree and Pom Pom bien entendu, declined se promener and kept their habitat. Now this was in fulfilment of a little understanding with three or more girls---such as Celina, Lily and Renée---who, having also declined the promenade, managed in the course of the afternoon to escape from their quarters on the second floor, rush down the hall and upstairs, and gain that landing on which was the only and well-locked door to The Enormous Room. The next act of this little comedy (or tragedy, as it proved for the participants, who got cabinot and pain sec---male and female alike---for numerous days thereafter) might well be entitled 'Love will find a way.' Just how the door was opened, the lock picked, etc., from the inside is (of course) a considerable mystery to anyone possessing a limited acquaintance with the art of burglary. Anyway, it was accomplished, and that in several fifths of a second. Now let the curtain fall, and the reader be satisfied with the significant word 'Asbestos' which is part of all first-rate performances.
The Surveillant, I fear, distrusted his balayeur. Balayeurs were always being changed because balayeurs were (in shameful contrast to the plantons) invariably human beings. For this deplorable reason they inevitably carried notes to and fro between les hommes and les femmes. Upon which ground the balayeur in this case a well-knit, keen-eyed, agile man, with a sense of humour and sharp perception of men, women and things in particular and in general--was called before the bar of an impromptu court, held by M. le Surveillant in The Enormous. Room after the promenade. I shall not enter in detail into the nature of the charges pressed in certain cases, but confine myself to quoting the close of a peroration which. would have done Demosthenes credit:
The individual in question mildly deprecated M. le Surveillant's opinion, while the audience roared and rocked with laughter of a somewhat ferocious sort. I have rarely seen the Surveillant so pleased with himself as after producing this bon mot. Only fear of his superior, the, ogre-like Directeur, kept him from letting off entirely all concerned in what after all (from the European point of view) was an essentially human proceeding. As nobody could prove anything about Même, he was not locked up in a dungeon; but he lost his job of sweeper---which was quite as bad, I am sure, from his point of view---and from that day became a common inhabitant of The Enormous Room like any of the rest of us.
His successor, Garibaldi, was a corker.
How the Almighty French government in its Almighty Wisdom ever found Garibaldi a place among us is more than I understand or ever will. He was a little tot in a faded blue-grey French uniform; and when he perspired. he pushed a képi up and back from his worried forehead which a lock of heavy hair threateningly overhung. As I recollect Garibaldi's terribly difficult not to say complicated lineage, his English mother had presented him to his Italian father in the country of France. However this trilogy may be, he had served at various times in the Italian, French and English armies. As there was (unless we call Garibaldi Italian, which he obviously was not) nary a subject of King Ponzi or Caruso or whatever be his name residing at La Ferté Macé, nor yet a suitable citizen of Merry England, Garibaldi was in the habit of expressing himself---chiefly at the card table, be it said---in a curious language which might have been mistaken for French. To B. and me he spoke an equally curious language, but a perfectly recognizable one, i.e., Cockney Whitechapel English. He showed us a perfectly authentic mission-card which certified that his family had received a pittance from some charitable organization situated in the Whitechapel neighbourhood, and that, moreover, they were in the habit of receiving same pittance; and that, finally, their claim to such pittance was amply justified by the poverty of their circumstances. Beyond this valuable certificate, Garibaldi (which every one called him) attained great incoherence. He had been wronged. He was always being misunderstood. His life had been a series of mysterious tribulations. I for one have the merest idea that Garibaldi was arrested for the theft of some peculiarly worthless trifle, and sent to the Limbo of La Ferté as a penance. This merest idea is suggested by something which happened when the Clever Man instituted a search for his missing knife---but I must introduce the Clever Man to my reader before describing that rather beguiling incident.
Conceive a tall, well-dressed, rather athletic, carefully kept, clean and neat, intelligent, not for a moment despondent, altogether superior man fairly young (perhaps twenty-nine) and quite bald. He wins enough every night at banque to enable him to pay the less fortunate to perform his corvée d'eau. for him. As a consequence he takes his vile coffee in bed every morning, then smokes a cigarette or two lazily, then drops off for a nap, and gets up about the middle of the morning promenade. Upon arising he strops a razor of his own (nobody knows how he gets away with a regular razor), carefully lathers his face and neck-while gazing into a rather classy mirror which hangs night and day over his head, above a little shelf on which he displays at such times a complete toilet outfit---and proceeds to annihilate the inconsiderable growth of beard which his mirror reveals to him. Having completed the annihilation, he performs the most extensive ablutions per one of the three or four pails which The Enormous Room boasts, which pail is by common consent dedicated to his personal and exclusive use. All this time he has been singing loudly and musically the following sumptuously imaginative ditty:
'mEEt me to-nIght in DREamland,
UNder the SIL-v'ry mOOn,
meet me in DREAmland,
sweet dreamy DREAmland---
there all my DRE-ams come trUE.'
His English accent is excellent. He pronounces his native language, which is the language of the Hollanders, crisply and firmly. He is not given to Gottverdummering. In addition to Dutch and English he speaks French clearly and Belgian distinctly. I dare say he knows half a dozen languages in all. He gives me the impression of a man who would never be at a loss, in whatever circumstances he might find himself. A man capable of extricating himself from the most difficult situation; and that with the greatest ease. A man who bides his time, and improves the present by separating, one after one, his moneyed fellow-prisoners from their bank-notes. He is, by all odds, the coolest player that I have ever watched. Nothing worries him. If he loses two hundred francs to-night, I am sure he will win it and fifty in addition to-morrow. He accepts opponents without distinction---the stupid, the wily, the vain, the cautious, the desperate, the hopeless. He has not the slightest pity, not the least fear. In one of my numerous notebooks I have this perfectly direct paragraph:
Card table: 4 stares play banque with 2 cigarettes (1 dead) & A pipe the clashing faces yanked by a leanness of one candle bottle-stuck (Birth of X) where sits The Clever Man who pyramids, sings (mornings) 'Meet Me...'
which specimen of telegraphic technique, being interpreted, means: Judas, Garibaldi, and The Holland Skipper (whom the reader will meet de suite) ---Garibaldi's cigarette having gone out, so greatly is he absorbed---play banque with four intent and highly focused individuals who may or may not be The Schoolmaster, Monsieur Auguste, The Barber, and Wine; with The Clever Man (as nearly always) acting as banker. The candle by whose somewhat uncorpulent illumination the various physiognomies are yanked into a ferocious unity is stuck into the mouth of a bottle. The lighting of the whole, the rhythmic disposition of the figures, construct a sensuous integration suggestive of The Birth of Christ by one of the. Old Masters. The Clever Man, having had his usual morning warble, is extremely quiet. He will win, he pyramids---and he pyramids because he has the cash and can afford to make every play a big one. All he needs is the rake of a croupier to, complete his disinterested and wholly nerveless poise. He is a born gambler, is The Clever Man---and I dare say that to play cards in time of war constituted a heinous crime and I am certain that he played cards before he arrived at La Ferté; moreover, I suppose that to win at cards in time of war is an unutterable crime, and I know that he has won at cards before in his life---so now we have a perfectly good and valid explanation of the presence of The Clever Man in our midst. The Clever Man's chief opponent was Judas. It was a real pleasure to us whenever of an evening Judas sweated and mopped and sweated and lost more and more and was finally cleaned out.
But The Skipper, I learned from certain prisoners who escorted the baggage of The Clever Man from The Enormous Room when he left us one day (as he did for some reason, to enjoy the benefits of freedom), paid the mastermind of the card table 150 francs at the gare---poor Skipper! upon whose vacant bed lay down luxuriously the Lobster, immediately to be wheeled fiercely all around The Enormous Room by the Garde-Champêtre and Judas, to the boisterous plaudits of tout le monde---but I started to tell about the afternoon when the master-mind lost his knife; and tell it I will forthwith. B. and I were lying prone upon our respective beds when---presto, a storm arose at the further end of The Enormous Room. We looked, and beheld The Clever Man, thoroughly and efficiently angry, addressing, threatening and frightening generally a constantly increasing group of fellow-prisoners. After dismissing with a few sharp linguistic cracks of the whip certain theories which seemed to be advanced by the bolder auditors with a view to palliating, persuading and tranquillizing his just wrath, he made for the nearest paillasse, turned it topsy-turvy, slit it neatly and suddenly from stem to stern with a jack-knife, banged the hay about, and then went with careful haste through the pitifully minute baggage of the paillasse's owner. Silence fell. No one, least of all the owner, said anything. From this bed The Clever Man turned to the next, treated it in the same fashion, searched it thoroughly, and made for the third. His motions were those of a perfectly oiled machine. He proceeded up the length of the room, varying his procedure only by sparing an occasional mattress, throwing paillasses about, tumbling sacs and boxes inside out; his face somewhat paler than usual but otherwise immaculate and expressionless. B. and I waited with some interest to see what would happen to our belongings. Arriving at our beds he paused, seemed to consider a moment, then not touching our paillasses proper, proceeded to open our duffle bags and hunt half-heartedly, remarking that 'somebody might have put it in'; and so passed on. 'What in hell is the matter with that guy?' I asked of Fritz, who stood near us with a careless air, some scorn and considerable amusement in his eyes. 'The bloody fool's lost his knife,' was Fritz's answer. After completing his rounds The Clever Man searched almost every one except ourselves and Fritz, and absolutely subsided on his own paillasse muttering occasionally 'if be found it' what he'd do. I think he never did find it. It was a beautiful knife, John the Baigneur said. 'What did it look like?' I demanded with some curiosity. 'It had a naked woman on the handle,' Fritz said, his eyes sharp with amusement.
And every one agreed that it was a great pity that The Clever Man had lost it, and every one began timidly to restore order and put his personal belongings back in place and say nothing at all.
But what amused me was to see the little tot in a bluish-grey French uniform, who---about when the search approached his paillasse---suddenly hurried over to B. (his perspiring forehead more perspiring than usual, his képi set at an angle of insanity) and hurriedly presented B. with a long-lost German-silver folding camp-knife, purchased by B. from a fellow-member of Vingt-et-Un who was known to us as 'Lord Algie'---a lanky, effeminate, brittle, spotless creature who was en route to becoming an officer and to whose finicky tastes the fat-jowled A. tirelessly pandered for, doubtless, financial considerations ---which knife according to the trembling and altogether miserable Garibaldi had 'been found' by him that day in the cour; which was eminently and above all things curious, as the treasure had been lost weeks before.
Which again brings us to The Skipper, whose elaborate couch has already been mentioned---he was a Hollander and one of the strongest, most gentle and altogether most pleasant of men, who used to sit on the water-wagon under the shed in the cour and smoke his pipe quietly of an afternoon. His stocky, even tightly-knit person, in its heavy trousers and jersey sweater, culminated in a bronzed face which was at once as kind and firm a piece of supernatural work as I think I ever knew. His voice was agreeably modulated. He was utterly without affectation. He had three sons. One evening a number of gendarmes came to his house and told him that he was arrested, 'so my three sons and I threw them all out of the window into the canal.'
I can still see the opening smile, squared kindness of cheeks, eyes like cool keys---his heart always with the Sea.
The little Machine-Fixer (le petit bonhomme avec le bras cassé as he styled himself, referring to his little paralysed left arm) was so perfectly different that I must let you see him next. He was slightly taller than Garibaldi, about of a size with Monsieur Auguste. He and Monsieur Auguste together were a fine sight, a sight which made me feel that I came of a race of giants. I am afraid it was more or less as giants that B. and I pitied the Machine-Fixer---still this was not really our fault, since the Machine-Fixer came to us with his troubles much as a very minute and helpless child comes to a very large and omnipotent one. And God knows we did not only pity him, we liked him---and if we could in some often ridiculous manner assist the Machine-Fixer I think we nearly always did. The assistance to which I refer was wholly spiritual; since the minute Machine-Fixer's colossal self-pride eliminated any possibility of material assistance. 'What we did, about every other night, was to entertain him (as we entertained our other friends) chez nous; that is to say, he would come up late every evening or every other evening, after his day's toil---for he worked as co-balayeur with Garibaldi and he was a tremendous worker; never have I seen a man who took his work so seriously and made so much of it---to sit, with great care and very respectfully, upon one or the other of our beds at the upper end of The Enormous Room, and smoke a black small pipe, talking excitedly and strenuously and fiercely about La Misère and himself and ourselves, often crying a little but very bitterly, and from time to time striking matches with a short angry gesture on the sole of his big,. almost square boot. His little, abrupt, conscientious, relentless, difficult self lived always in a single dimension---the somewhat beautiful dimension of Sorrow. He was a Belgian, and one of two Belgians in whom I have ever felt the least or slightest interest; for the Machine-Fixer might have been a Polak or an Idol or an Esquimo so far as his nationality. affected his soul. By and large, that was the trouble---the Machine-Fixer had a soul. Put the bracelets on an ordinary man, tell him he's a bad egg, treat him rough, shove him into the jug or its equivalent (you see I have regard always for M. le Surveillant's delicate but no doubt necessary distinction between La Ferté and Prison), and he will become one of three animals---a rabbit, that is to say timid; a mote, that is to say stupid; or a hyena, that is to say Harree the Hollander. But if, by some fatal, some incomparably fatal accident, this man has a soul---ah, then we have and truly have and have most horribly what is called in La Ferté Macé by those who have known it, La Misère. Monsieur Auguste's valiant attempts at cheerfulness and the natural buoyancy of his gentle disposition in a slight degree protected him from La Misère. The Machine-Fixer was lost. By nature he was tremendously sensible, he was the very apotheosis of l'âme sensible in fact. His sensibilité made him shoulder not only the inexcusable injustice which he had suffered but the incomparable and overwhelming total injustice which every one had suffered and was suffering en masse day and night in The Enormous Room. His woes, had they not sprung from perfectly real causes, might have suggested a persecution complex, As it happened there was no possible method of relieving them---they could be relieved in only one way: by Liberty. Not simply by his personal liberty, but by the liberation of every single fellow-captive as well. His extraordinarily personal anguish could not be selfishly appeased by a merely partial righting, in his own case, of the Wrong---the ineffable and terrific and to be perfectly avenged Wrong-done to those who ate and slept and wept and played cards within that abominable and unyielding Symbol which enclosed the immutable vileness of our common life. It was necessary, for its appeasement. that a shaft of bright lightning suddenly and entirely should wither the human and material structures which stood always between our filthy and pitiful selves and the unspeakable cleanness of Liberty.
B. recalls that the little Machine-Fixer said or hinted that he had been either a socialist or an anarchist when he was young. So that is doubtless why we had the privilege of his society. After all, it is highly improbable that this poor socialist suffered more at the hands of the great and good French government than did many a C.O. at the hands of the great and good American government; or---since all great governments are per se good and vice versa---than did many a man in general who was cursed with a talent for thinking during the warlike moments recently passed; during that is to say an epoch when the g. and g. nations demanded of their respective peoples the exact antithesis to thinking; said antithesis being vulgarly called Belief. Lest which statement prejudice some members of the American Legion in the disfavour of the Machine-Fixer or rather of myself---awful thought---I hasten to assure every one that the Machine-Fixer was a highly moral person. His morality was at times almost gruesome; as when he got started on the inhabitants of the women's quarters. Be it understood that the Machine-Fixer was human, that he would take a letter---provided he liked the sender---and deliver it to the sender's adorée without a murmur. That was simply a good deed done for a friend; it did not imply that he approved of the friend's choice, which for strictly moral reasons he invariably and to the friend's very face violently deprecated. To this little man of perhaps forty-five, with a devoted wife waiting for him in Belgium (a wife whom he worshipped and loved more than he worshipped and loved anything in the world, a wife whose fidelity to her husband and whose trust and confidence in him echoed in the letters which---when we three were alone---the little Machine-Fixer tried always to read to us, never getting beyond the first sentence or two before he broke down and sobbed from his feet to his eyes) , to such a little person his reaction to les femmes was more than natural. It was in fact inevitable.
'Women, to him at least, were of two kinds and two kinds only. There were les femmes honnêtes and there were les putains. In La Ferté, he informed us---and as balayeur he ought to have known whereof he spoke---there were as many as three ladies of the former variety. One of them he talked with often. She told him her story. She was a Russian, of a very fine education, living peacefully in Paris up to the time that she wrote to her relatives a letter containing the following treasonable sentiment:
The letter had been read by the French censor, as had B.'s letter; and her arrest and transference from her home in Paris to La Ferté Macé promptly followed. She was as intelligent as she was virtuous and had nothing to do with her frailer sisters, so the Machine-Fixer informed us with a quickly passing flash of joy. Which sisters (his little forehead knotted itself and his big bushy eyebrows plunged together wrathfully) were wicked and indecent and utterly despicable disgraces to their sex---and this relentless Joseph fiercely and jerkily related how only the day before he had repulsed the painfully obvious solicitations of a Madame Potiphar by turning his back, like a good Christian, upon temptation and marching out of the room, broom tightly clutched in virtuous hands.
'M'sieu Jean' (meaning myself) 'savez-vous'---with a terrific gesture which consisted in snapping his thumbnail between his teeth---'ÇA PUE!'
Then he added: 'And what would my wife say to me, if I came home to her and presented her with that which this creature had presented to me? They are animals-' cried the little Machine-Fixer---'all they want is a man, they don't care who he is, they want a man. But they won't get me!'---and he warned us to beware.
Especially interesting, not to say valuable, was the Machine-Fixer's testimony concerning the more or less regular 'inspections' (which were held by the very same doctor who had 'examined' me in the course of my first day at La Ferté) for les femmes; presumably in the interests of public safety. Les femmes, quoth the Machine-Fixer, who had been many times an eye-witness of this proceeding, lined up talking and laughing and---crime of crimes-smoking cigarettes, outside the bureau of M. le Médecin Major. 'Une femme entre. Elle se lève les jupes jusqu'au menton et se met sur le banc. Le médecin major la regarde. Il dit de suite "Bon. C'est tout." Elle sort. Une autre entre. La même chose. "Bon. C'est fini" ... M'sieu Jean: prenez garde!'
And he struck a match fiercely on the black, almost square boot which lived on the end of his little worn trouser-leg, bending his small body forward as he did so, and bringing the flame upward in a violent curve. And the flame settled on his little black pipe. And his cheeks sucked until they must have met, and a slow unwilling noise arose, and with the return of his cheeks a small coIourless wisp of possibly smoke came upon the air. That's not tobacco. Do you know what it is? It's wood! And I sit here smoking wood in my pipe when my wife is sick with worrying . . . 'M'sieu Jean'---leaning forward with jaw protruding and a oneness of bristly eyebrows, 'Ces grands messieurs qui ne se foutent pas mal si l'on CREVE de faim, savez-vous, ils croient chacun qu'il est Le Bon Dieu LUI-Même. Et M'sieu jean, savez-vous, ils sont tous'---leaning right in my face, the withered hand making a pitiful fist of itself---'Ils. Sont. Des. CRAPULES!'
And his ghastly and toy-like wizened and minute arm would try to make a pass at their lofty lives. O gouvernement français, I think it was not very clever of You to put this terrible doll in La Ferté; I should have left him in Belgium with his little doll-wife if I had been You; for when Governments are found dead there is always a little doll on top of them, pulling and tweaking with his little, hands to get back the microscopic knife which sticks firmly in the quiet meat of their hearts.
One day only did I see him happy or nearly happy-- when a Belgian baroness for some reason arrived, and was bowed and fed and wined by the delightfully respectful and perfectly behaved Official Captors---'and I know of her in Belgium, she is a great lady, she is very powerful and she is generous; I fell on my knees before her, and implored her in the name of my wife and Le Bon Dieu to intercede in my behalf; and she has made a note of it, and she told me she would write the Belgian King and I will be free in a few weeks, FREE!'
The little Machine-Fixer, I happen to know, did finally leave La Ferté---for Précigné.
... In the kitchen worked a very remarkable person. Who wore sabots. And sang continuously in a very subdued way to himself as he stirred the huge black kettles. 'We, that is to say B. and I, became acquainted with Afrique very gradually. You did not know Afrique suddenly. You became cognizant of Afrique gradually. You were in the cour, staring at ooze and dead trees, when a figure came striding from the cuisine lifting its big wooden feet after it rhythmically, unwinding a parti-coloured scarf from its waist as it came, and singing to itself in a subdued manner a jocular and---I fear unprintable ditty concerning Paradise. The figure entered the little gate to the cour in a business-like way, unwinding continuously, and made stridingly for the cabinet situated up against the stone-wall which separated the promenading sexes---dragging behind it on the ground a tail of ever-increasing dimensions. The cabinet reached, tail and figure parted company; the former fell inert to the limitless mud, the latter disappeared into the contrivance with a Jack-in-the-box rapidity. From which contrivance the continuing ditty,
---Or again, it's a lithe pausing poise, intensely intelligent, certainly I sensitive, delivering dryingly a series of sure and rapid hints that penetrate the fabric of stupidity accurately and whisperingly; dealing one after another brief and poignant instupidities, distinct and uncompromising, crisp and altogether arrowlike. The poise has a cigarette in its hand, which cigarette it has just pausingly rolled from material furnished by a number of carefully saved butts (whereof Afrique's pockets are invariably full). Its neither old nor young but rather keen face hoards a pair of greyish-blue witty eyes, which face and eyes are directed upon us through the open door of a little room. Which little room is in the rear of the cuisine; a little, room filled with the inexpressibly clean and soft odour of newly-cut wood. Which wood we are pretending to split and pile for kindling. As a matter of fact we are enjoying Afrique's conversation, escaping from the bleak and profoundly muddy cour, and (under the watchful auspices of the Cook, who plays sentinel) drinking something approximating coffee with something approximating sugar therein. All this because the Cook thinks we're boches and being the Cook and a boche lui-même ---is consequently peculiarly concerned for our welfare.
Afrique is talking about les journaux, and to what prodigious pains they go to not tell the truth; or he is telling how a native stole upon him in the night armed with a spear two metres long, once on a time in a certain part of the world; or he is predicting that the Germans will march upon the French by way of Switzerland; or he is teaching us to count and swear in Arabic; or he is having a very good time in the Midi as a tinker, sleeping under a tree outside of a little town ...
And Le Chef is grunting, without lifting his old eyes from the dissection of an obstreperous cabbage,
and we are something like happy. For it is singularly and pleasantly warm in the cuisine. And Afrique's is an alert kind of mind, which has been and seen and observed and penetrated and known---a bit there, somewhat here, chiefly everywhere. Its specialty being politics in which case Afrique has had the inestimable advantage of observing without being observed---until La Ferté; whereupon Afrique goes on uninterruptedly observing, recognizing that a significant angle of observation has been presented to him gratis. Les journaux and politics in general are topics upon which Afrique can say more, without the slightest fatigue, than a book as big as my two thumbs
'Mais oui, ils ont cherché de l'eau et puis je leur donne du café,' Monsieur, or more properly Mynheer le chef, is expostulating; the planton is stupidly protesting that we are supposed to be upstairs; Afrique is busily stirring a huge black pot, winking gravely at us and singing softly:
Now that I have mentioned the pleasures of the kitchen, it is perhaps à propos that I say a word upon the displeasures of Brown Bread. He was a Belgian, and therefore chewed and spat juice night and day from the unutterably stolid face of an overgrown farmer. The only words in English which he was able to articulate were 'Me too'---when cigarettes were handed round by somebody who had got some money from somewhere. I hasten to say that the name which we gave him is a contraction of an occult sound, or rather rumbling shout, uttered by the Surveillant when he leaned from a little window which faced the cour and announced the names of those fortunati for whom letters (duly opened, read, and their contents approved by the Secrétaire, alias the weak-eyed biped) had somehow emanated from the mystère of the outer world. The Surveillant, his glasses having tremulously inspected a letter or a carte postale---while all les hommes breathlessly attended, in the mud, upon his slightest murmur---successfully would (to the great disappointment of everyone else) pronounce
whereat this ten-foot personage would awkwardly advance in his squeaky black puttees, shifting his quid with a violent effort in order to reply simperingly:
For the rest, he was perfectly stupid, inclined to be morose, and had friends very much like himself who shared his nationality and whose moroseness and stupidity I do not particularly care to remember. He was a Belgian, and that's all. By which I mean that I am uncharitable enough to not care what happened to him or for what stupid and morose crime he was doing penance at La Ferté under the benignant auspices of the French government.
Just as well perhaps, since my search for causes in this connection has proved futile; a fact which by this time the reader realizes. Better to have let a sleeping mystère lie, I suppose or no I don't, for The Man Who Played Too Late did that very thing and thereby shrouded the inexplicable in a nimbus of inaccuracy. Perhaps because he felt, in his blond, hungrily cadaverous way, that to have been arrested for functioning (as a member of an orchestra) after closing time in Paris was a humiliation too obvious to require analysis, Be that as it may, I conclude this particular group of portraits with his own remark, which frames them after all rather nicely:
'Every one is here for something.'
THE inhabitants of The Enormous Room whose portraits I have attempted in the preceding chapter were, with one or two exceptions, inhabiting at the time of my arrival. Now the thing which above all things made death worth living and life worth dying at La Ferté Macé was the kinetic aspect of that institution; the arrivals, singly or in groups, of nouveaux of sundry nationalities whereby our otherwise more or less simple existence was happily complicated, our putrescent placidity shaken by a fortunate violence. Before, however, undertaking this aspect I shall attempt to represent for my own benefit as well as the reader's certain more obvious elements of that stasis which greeted the candidates for disintegration upon their admittance to our select, not to say distinguished, circle. Or: I shall describe, briefly, Apollyon and the instruments of his power, which instruments are three in number: Fear, Women, and Sunday.
By Apollyon I mean a very definite fiend. A fiend who, secluded in the sumptuous and luxurious privacy of his own personal bureau (which as a rule no one of lesser rank than the Surveillant was allowed, so far as I might observe---and I observed---to enter) compelled to the unimaginable meanness of his will, by means of the three potent instruments in question, all---within the sweating walls of La Ferté---that was once upon a time human. I mean a very complete Apollyon, a Satan whose word is dreadful not because it is painstakingly unjust but because it is incomprehensibly omnipotent. I mean, in short, Monsieur le Directeur.
I shall discuss first of all Monsieur le Directeur's most obvious weapon.
Fear was instilled by three means into the erstwhile human entities whose presence at La Ferté gave Apollyon his job. The three means were: his subordinates, who being one and all fearful of his power directed their energies to but one end---the production in ourselves of a similar emotion; two forms of punishment, which supplied said subordinates with a weapon over any of us who refused to find room for this desolating emotion in his heart of hearts; and, finally, direct contact with his unutterable personality.
Beneath the Demon was the Surveillant. I have already described the Surveillant. I wish to say, however, that in my opinion the Surveillant was the most decent official at La Ferté. I pay him this tribute gladly and honestly. To me, at least, be was kind: to the majority he was inclined to be lenient. I honestly and gladly believe that. the Surveillant was incapable of that quality whose innateness, in the case of his superior, rendered that gentleman a (to my mind) perfect representative of the Almighty French Government: I believe that the Surveillant did not enjoy being cruel, that he was not absolutely without pity or understanding. As a personality I therefore pay him my respects. I am myself incapable of caring whether, as a tool of the Devil, he will find the bright firelight of Hell too warm for him or no.
Beneath the Surveillant were the Secrétaire, Monsieur Richard, the Cook, and the plantons. The first I have described sufficiently, since he was an obedient and negative---albeit peculiarly responsible---cog in the machine of decomposition. Of Monsieur Richard, whose portrait is included in the account of my first day at La Ferté, I wish to say that he had a very comfortable room of his own filled with primitive and otherwise imposing medicines; the walls of this comfortable room being beauteously adorned by some fifty magazine covers representing the female form in every imaginable state of undress, said magazine-covers being taken chiefly from such amorous periodicals as Le Sourire and the old stand-by of indecency, La Vie Parisienne. Also Monsieur Richard kept a pot of geraniums upon his window-ledge, which haggard and aged-looking symbol of joy he doubtless (in his spare moments) peculiarly enjoyed watering. The Cook is by this time familiar to my reader. I beg to say that I highly approve of The Cook; exclusive of the fact that the coffee, which went up to The Enormous Room tous les matins, was made every day with the same grounds plus a goodly injection of checkerberry---for the simple reason that the Cook had to supply our captors and especially Apollyon with real coffee, whereas what he supplied to les hommes made no difference. The same is true of sugar: our morning coffee, in addition to being a water-thin, black, muddy, stinking liquid, contained not the smallest suggestion of sweetness, whereas the coffee which went to the officials---and the coffee which B. and I drank in recompense for 'catching water'---had all the sugar you could possibly wish for. The poor Cook was fined one day as a result of his economies, subsequent to a united action on the part of the fellow-sufferers. It was a day when a gent immaculately dressed appeared---after duly warning the Fiend that he was about to inspect the Fiend's ménage---an, I think, public official of Orne.
Judas (at the time chef de chambre), supported by the sole and unique indignation of all his fellow-prisoners save two or three out of whom Fear had made rabbits or moles, early carried the pail (which by common agreement not one of us had touched that day) downstairs, along the hall, and up one flight---where he encountered the Directeur, Surveillant and Handsome Stranger all amicably and pleasantly conversing. Judas set the pail down; bowed; and begged, as spokesman for the united male gender of La Ferté Macé, that the quality of the.. coffee be examined. 'We won't any of us drink it, begging your pardon, Messieurs,' he claims that he said. What happened then is highly amusing. The petit balayeur, an eye-witness of the proceeding, described it to me as follows:
'The Diiecteur roared "COMMENT"? He was horribly angry. "Oui, Monsieur," said the maître de chambre humbly.---"Pourquoi?" thundered the Directeur.-"Because it's undrinkable," the maître de chambre said quietly.---"Undrinkable? Nonsense!" cried the Directeur furiously.---"Be so good as to taste it, Monsieur le Directeur."---"I taste it? Why should I taste it? The coffee is perfectly good, plenty good for you men. This is ridiculous."---"Why don't we all taste it?" suggested the Surveillant ingratiatingly.---"Why, yes," said the Visitor mildly.---"Taste it? Of course not. This is---ridiculous and I shall punish---"---"I should like, if you don't mind, to try a little," the Visitor said.----"Oh well, of course, if you like," the Directeur mildly agreed. "Give me a cup of that coffee, you!'"---"With pleasure, sir," said the maître de chambre. The Directeur---M'sieu' Jean, you would have burst laughing-seized the cup, lifted it to his lips, swallowed with a frightful expression (his eyes almost popping out of his head) and cried fiercely, "DELICIOUS!" The Surveillant took a cupful; sipped; tossed the coffee away, looking as if he had been hit in the eyes, and remarked, "Ah." The maître de chambre---M'sieu' Jean he is clever---scooped the third cupful from the very bottom of the pail, and very politely, with a big bow, handed it to the Visitor; who took it, touched it to his lips, turned perfectly green, and cried out "Impossible!" M'sieu' Jean, we all thought-the Directeur and the Surveillant and the maître de chambre and myself---that he was going to vomit. He leaned against the wall a moment, quite green; then recovering said faintly---"The Kitchen." The Directeur looked very nervous and shouted, trembling all over, "Yes indeed! We'll see the Cook about this perfectly impossible coffee. I had no idea that my men were getting such coffee. It's abominable! That's what it is, an outrage!"---And they all tottered downstairs to the Cook; and, M'sieu' Jean, they searched the kitchen; and what do you think? They found ten pounds of coffee and twelve pounds of sugar all neatly hidden away, that the Cook had been saving for himself out of our allowance. He's a beast, the Cook!'
I must say that, although the morning coffee improved enormously for as much as a week, it descended afterwards to its original level of excellence.
The Cook, I may add, officiated three times a week at a little table to the left as you entered the dining-room. Here he stood, and threw at every one (as every one entered) a hunk of the most extraordinary viande which I have ever had the privilege of trying to masticate---it could not be tasted. It was pale and leathery. B. and myself often gave ours away in our hungriest moments; which statement sounds as if we were generous to others, whereas the reason for these donations was that we couldn't eat, let alone stand the sight of, this staple of diets. We had to do our donating on the sly, since the chef always gave us choice pieces and we were anxious not to hurt the chef's feelings. There was a good deal of spasmodic protestation à propos la viande, but the Cook always bullied it down---nor was the meat his fault; since, from the miserable carcasses which I have often seen carried into the kitchen from without, the Cook had to select something which would suit the meticulous stomach of the Lord of Hell, as also the less meticulous digestive organs of his minions; and it was only after every planton had got a piece of viande to his plantonic taste that the captives, female and male, came in for consideration.
On the whole, I think I never envied the Cook his strange and difficult, not to say gruesome, job. With the men en masse he was bound to be unpopular. To the goodwill of those above he was necessarily more or less a slave. And on the whole I liked the Cook very much, as did B. for the very good and sufficient reason that he liked us both.
About the plantons I have something to say, something which it gives me huge pleasure to say. I have to say, about the plantons, that as a bunch they struck me at the time and will always impress me as the next to the lowest species of human organism; the lowest, in my experienced estimation, being the gendarme proper. The plantons were, with one exception---he of the black holster with whom I collided on the first day---changed from time to time. Again with this one exception, they were (as I have noted) apparently réformés who were enjoying a vacation from the trenches in the lovely environs of Orne. Nearly all of them were witless. Every one of them had something the matter with him physically as well. For instance, one planton had a large wooden hand. Another was possessed of a long unmanageable left leg made, as nearly as I could discover, of tin. A third had a huge glass eye.
These peculiarities of physique, however, did not inhibit the plantons from certain essential and normal desires. On the contrary. The plantons probably realized that, in competition with the male world at large, their glass legs and tin hands and wooden eyes would not stand a Chinaman's chance of winning the affection and admiration of the fair sex. At any rate they were always on the alert for opportunities to triumph over the admiration and affection of les femmes at La Ferté, where their success was not endangered by competition. They had the bulge on everybody; and they used what bulge they had to such good advantage that one of them, during my stay, was pursued with a revolver by their sergeant, captured, locked up, and shipped off for court-martial on the charge of disobedience and threatening the life of a superior officer. He had been caught with the goods---that is to say, in the girl's cabinot---by said superior: an incapable, strutting, undersized, bepimpled person in a bright uniform who spent his time assuming the poses of a general for the benefit of the ladies; of his admiration for whom and his intentions toward whom he made no secret. By all means one of the most disagreeable petty bullies whom I ever beheld. This arrest of a planton was, so long as I inhabited La Ferté, the only case in which abuse of the weaker sex was punished. That attempts at abuse were frequent I know from allusions and direct statements made in the letters which passed by way of the balayeur from the girls to their captive admirers. I might say that the senders of these letters, whom I shall attempt to portray presently, have my unmitigated and unqualified admiration. By all odds they possessed the most terrible vitality and bravery of any human beings, women or men, whom it has ever been my extraordinary luck to encounter, or ever will be (I am absolutely sure) in this world.
The duties of the plantons were those simple and obvious duties which only very stupid persons can perfectly fulfil, namely: to take turns guarding the building and its inhabitants; to not accept bribes, whether in the form of matches, cigarettes or conversation, from their prisoners; to accompany anyone who went anywhere outside the walls (as did occasionally the balayeurs, to transport baggage; the men who did corvée; and the catchers of water for the cook, who proceeded as far as the hydrant situated on the outskirts of the town---a momentous distance of perhaps five hundred feet) ; and finally to obey any and all orders from all and any superiors without thinking. Plantons were supposed---but only supposed---to report any schemes for escaping which they might overbear during their watch upon les femmes et les hommes en promenade. Of course they never overheard any, since the least intelligent of the watched was a paragon of wisdom by comparison with the watchers. B. and I had a little ditty about Plantons, of which I can quote (unfortunately) only the first line and refrain,
'A planton loved lady once
(Cabbages and cauliflowers!)'
It was a very fine song. In considering my remarks upon plantons I must, in justice to my subject, mention the three prime plantonic virtues---they were (1) beauty, as regards face and person and bearing, (2) chivalry, as regards women, (3) heroism, as regards males.
The somewhat unique and amusing appearance of the plantons rather militated against than served to inculcate Fear---it was therefore not wonderful that they and the desired emotion were supported by two strictly enforced punishments, punishments which were meted out with equal and unflinching severity to both sexes alike. The less undesirable punishment was known as pain sec---which Fritz, shortly after my arrival, got for smashing a window-pane by accident; and which Harree and Pompom, the incorrigibles, were getting most of the time. This punishment consisted in denying to the culprit all nutriment save two stone-hard morsels of dry bread per diem. The culprit's intimate friends, of course, made a point of eating only a portion of their own morsels of soft heavy sour bread (we got two a day, with each soupe) and presenting the culprit with the rest. The common method of getting pain sec was also a simple one---it was for a man to wave, shout or make other signs audible or visible to an inhabitant of the women's quarters; and, for a girl, to be seen at her window by the Directeur at any time during the morning and afternoon promenades of the men. The punishment for sending a letter to a girl might possibly be pain sec, but was more often---I pronounce the word even now with a sinking of the heart, though curiously enough I escaped that for which it stands---cabinot.
There were (as already mentioned) a number of cabinots, sometimes referred to as cachots by persons of linguistic propensities. To repeat myself slightly: at least three were situated on the ground floor; and these were used whenever possible in preference to the one or ones upstairs, for the reason that they were naturally more damp and chill and dark and altogether more dismal and unhealthy. Dampness and cold were considerably increased by the substitution, for a floor, of two or three planks resting here and there in mud. I am now describing what my eyes saw, not what was shown to the inspectors on their rare visits to the Directeur's little shop for making criminals. I know what these occasional visitors beheld, because it, too, I have seen with my own eyes: seen the two balayeurs staggering downstairs with a bed (consisting of a high iron frame, a huge mattress of delicious thickness, spotless sheets, warm blankets, and a sort of quilt neatly folded over all) ; seen this bed placed by the panting sweepers in the thoroughly cleaned and otherwise immaculate cabinot at the foot of the stairs and opposite the cuisine, the well-scrubbed door being left wide open. I saw this done as I was going to dinner. While les hommes were upstairs recovering from la soupe, the gentlemen-inspectors were invited downstairs to look at a specimen of the Directeur's kindness---a kindness which he could not restrain even in the case of those who were guilty of some terrible wrong. (The little Belgian with the Broken Arm, alias the Machine-Fixer, missed not a word nor a gesture of all this; and described the scene to me with an indignation which threatened his sanity.)---Then, while les hommes were in the cour for the afternoon, the balayeurs were rushed to The Enormous Room, which they cleaned to beat the band with the fear of Hell in them; after which, the Directeur led his amiable guests leisurely upstairs and showed them the way the men kept their quarters; kept them without dictation on the part of the officials, so fond were they of what was to them one and all more than a delightful temporary residence---was in fact a home. From The Enormous Room the procession wended a gentle way to the women's quarters (scrubbed and swept in anticipation of their arrival) and so departed; conscious---no doubt---that in the Directeur France had found a rare specimen of whole-hearted and efficient generosity.
Upon being sentenced to cabinot, whether for writing an intercepted letter, fighting, threatening a planton, of committing some minor offence for the nth time, a man took one blanket from his bed, carried it downstairs to the cachot, and disappeared therein for a night or many days and nights as the case might be. Before entering he. was thoroughly searched and temporarily deprived of the contents of his pockets, whatever they might include. It was made certain that he had no cigarettes or tobacco in any other form upon his person, and no matches. The door was locked behind him and double and triple locked---to judge by the sound---by a planton, usually the Black Holster, who on such occasions produced a ring of enormous keys suggestive of a burlesque jailor. Within the stone walls of his dungeon (into which a beam of light no bigger than a ten-cent piece, and in some cases no light at all, penetrated) the culprit could shout and scream his or her heart out if he or she liked, without serious annoyance to His Majesty King Satan. I wonder how many times, en route to la soupe or The Enormous Room or promenade, I have heard the unearthly smouldering laughter of girls or of men entombed within the drooling greenish walls of La Ferté Macé. A dozen times, I suppose, I have seen a friend of the entombed stoop adroitly and shove a cigarette or a morceau of chocolat under the door, to the girls or the men or the girl or man screaming, shouting, and pommelling faintly behind that very door---but, you would say by the sound, a good part of a mile away ... Ah well, more of this later, when we come to les femmes on their own account.
The third method employed to throw Fear into the minds of his captives lay, as I have said, in the sight of the Captor Himself. And this was by far the most efficient method.
He loved to suddenly dash upon the girls when they were carrying their slops along the hall and down-stairs, as (in common with the men) they had to do at least twice every morning and twice every afternoon. The corvée of girls and men were of course arranged so as not to coincide; yet somehow or other they managed to coincide on the average about once a week, or if not coincide, at any rate approach coincidence. On such occasions, as often as not under the planton's very stupid nose, a kiss or an embrace would be stolen---provocative of much fierce laughter and some scurrying. Or else, while the moneyed captives (including B. and Cummings) were waiting their turn to enter the bureau de M. le Gestionnaire, or even were ascending the stairs with a planton behind them, en route to Mecca, along the hall would come five or six women staggering and carrying huge pails full to the brim of everyone knew what; five or six heads, lowered, ill-dressed bodies tense with effort, free arms rigidly extended from the shoulder downward and outward in a plane at right angles to their difficult progress, and thereby helping to balance the disconcerting load---all embarrassed, some humiliated, others desperately at ease along they would come under the steady sensual gaze of the men, under a gaze which seemed to eat them alive ... and then one of them would laugh with the laughter which is neither pitiful nor terrible, but horrible ...
And BANG! would a door fly open, and ROAR! a well-dressed animal about five feet six inches in height, with prominent cuffs and a sportive tie, the altogether decently and neatly-clothed thick-built figure squirming from top to toe with anger, the large head trembling and white-faced beneath a flourishing mane of coarse blackish bristly perhaps hair, the arm crooked at the elbow and shaking a huge fist of pinkish, well-manicured flesh, the distinct, cruel, brightish eyes sprouting from their sockets under bushily enormous black eyebrows, the big, weak, coarse mouth extended almost from ear to ear and spouting invective, the soggy, brutal lips clinched upward and backward showing the huge horse-like teeth to the frothshot gums.
And I saw once a little girl eleven years-old scream in terror and drop her pail of slops, spilling most of it on her feet; and seize it in a clutch of frail child's fingers, and stagger, sobbing and shaking, past the Fiend---one hand held over her contorted face to shield her from the Awful Thing of Things---to the head of the stairs; where she collapsed, and was half-carried, half-dragged by one of the older ones to the floor below, while another older one picked up her pail and lugged this and her own hurriedly downward.
And after the last head had disappeared, Monsieur le Directeur continued to rave and shake and tremble for as much as ten seconds, his shoe-brush mane crinkling with black anger---then, turning suddenly upon les hommes (who cowered up against the wall as men cower up against a material thing in the presence of the supernatural ) he roared and shook his pinkish fist at us till the gold stud in his immaculate cuff walked out upon the wad of clenching flesh:
'ET VOUS-PRENEZ GARDE---SI JE VOUS ATTRAPPE AVEC LES FEMMES UNE AUTRE FOIS JE VOUS FOUS----AU CABINOT POUR QUINZE JOURS, TOUS---TOUS---'
for as much as half a minute; then turning suddenly his round-shouldered big back he adjusted his cuffs, muttering PROSTITUTES and WHORES and DIRTY FILTH OF WOMEN, crammed his big fists into his trousers, pulled in his chin till his fattish jowl rippled along the square jaws, panted, grunted, very completely satisfied, very contented, rather proud of himself, took a strutting stride or two in his expensive shiny boots, and shot all at once through the open door which he SLAMMED after him.
À propos the particular incident described for the purposes of illustration, I wish to state that I believe in miracles: the miracle being that I did not knock the spit-covered mouthful of teeth and jabbering, brutish, out-thrust jowl (which certainly were not farther than eighteen inches from me) through the bull neck bulging in its spotless collar. For there are times when one almost decides not to merely observe ... besides which, never in my life before had I wanted to kill, to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder. Perhaps some day. Unto God I hope so.
Now I will try to give the reader a glimpse of the 'Women of La Ferté Macé.
The little Machine-Fixer, as I said in the preceding chapter, divided them into Good and Bad. He said there were as much as three Good ones, of which three he had talked to one and knew her story. Another of the three Good Women obviously was Margherite---a big, strong female who did washing, and who was a permanent resident because she had been careless enough to be born of German parents. I think I spoke with number three on the day I waited to be examined by the Commission---a Belgian girl, whom I shall mention later along with that incident. Whereat, by process of elimination, we arrive at les putains, whereof God may know how many there were at La Ferté, but I certainly do not. To les putains in general I have already made my deep and sincere bow. I should like to speak here of four individuals. They are Celina, Lena, Lily, Renée.
Celina Tek was an extraordinarily beautiful animal. Her firm girl's body emanated a supreme vitality. It was neither tall nor short, its movements nor graceful nor awkward. It came and went with a certain sexual velocity, a velocity whose health and vigour made everyone in La Ferté seem puny and old. Her deep sensual voice had a coarse richness. Her face, dark and young, annihilated easily the ancient and greyish walls. Her wonderful hair was shockingly black. Her perfect teeth, when she smiled, reminded you of an animal. The cult of Isis never worshipped a more deep luxurious smile. This face, framed in the night of its hair, seemed (as it moved at the window overlooking the cour des femmes) inexorably and colossally young. The body was absolutely and fearlessly alive. In the impeccable and altogether admirable desolation of La Ferté and the Normandy autumn, Celina, easily and fiercely moving, was a kinesis.
The French Government must have already recognized this; it called her incorrigible.
Lena, also a Belgian, always and fortunately just missed being a type which in the American language (sometimes called 'Slang') has a definite nomenclature. Lena had the makings of an ordinary broad. And yet, thanks to La Misère, a certain indubitable personality became gradually rescued. A tall hard face about which was loosely pitched some hay-coloured hair. Strenuous and mutilated hands. A loose, raucous way of laughing, which contrasted well with Celina's definite gurgling titter. Energy rather than vitality. A certain power and roughness about her laughter. She never smiled. She laughed loudly and obscenely and always. A woman.
Lily was a German girl, who looked unbelievably old, wore white or once white dresses, had a sort of drawling scream in her throat besides a thick deadly cough, and floundered leanly under the eyes of men. Upon the skinny neck of Lily a face had been set for all the world to look upon and be afraid. The face itself was made of flesh green and almost putrescent. In each check a bloody spot. Which was not rouge, but the flower which consumption plants in the cheek of its favourite. A face vulgar and vast and heavy-featured, about which a smile was always flopping uselessly. Occasionally Lily grinned, showing several monstrously decayed and perfectly yellow teeth, which teeth usually were smoking a cigarette. Her bluish hands were very interestingly dead; the fingers were nervous, they lived in cringing bags of freckled skin, they might almost be alive.
She was perhaps eighteen years old.
Renée, the fourth member of the circle, was always well-dressed and somehow chic. Her silhouette had character, from the waved coiffure to the enormously high heels. Had Renée been able to restrain a perfectly toothless smile she might possibly have passed for a jeune gonzesse. She was not. The smile was ample and black. You saw through it into the back of her neck. You felt as if her life was in danger when she smiled, as it probably was. Her skin was not particularly tired. But Renée was old, older than Lena by several years; perhaps twenty-five, which for a lady of her profession is very old. Also about Renée there was a certain dangerous fragility of unhealth. And yet Renée was hard, immeasurably hard. And accurate. Her exact movements were the movements of a mechanism. Including her voice, which had a purely mechanical timbre. She could do two things with this voice and two only---screech and boom. At times she tried to chuckle and almost fell apart. Renée was in fact dead. In looking at her for the first time, I realized that there may be something stylish about death.
This first time was interesting in the extreme. It was Lily's birthday. We looked out of the windows which composed one side of the otherwise windowless Enormous Room; looked down, and saw---just outside the wall of the building---Celina, Lena, Lily and a new girl who was Renée. They were all individually intoxicated. Celina was joyously tight. Renée was stiffly bunnied. Lena was raucously pickled. Lily, floundering and staggering and tumbling and whirling, was utterly soused. She was all tricked out in an erstwhile dainty dress, white, and with ribbons. Celina (as always) wore black. Lena had on a rather heavy striped sweater and skirt. Renée was immaculate in tight-fitting satin or something of the sort; she seemed to have somehow escaped from a doll's house overnight. About the group were a number of plantons, roaring with laughter, teasing, insulting, encouraging, from time to time attempting to embrace the ladies. Celina gave one of them a terrific box on the ear. The mirth of the others was redoubled. Lily spun about and fell down, moaning and coughing, and screaming about her fiancé in Belgium; what a handsome young fellow he was, how he had promised to marry her ... shouts of enjoyment from the plantons. Lena had to sit down or else fall down, so she sat down with a good deal of dignity, her back against the wall, and in that position attempted to execute a kind of dance. Les plantons rocked and applauded. Celina smiled beautifully at the men who were staring from every window of The Enormous Room, and, with a supreme effort, went over and dragged Renée (who had neatly and accurately folded up with machine-like rapidity in the mud) through the doorway and into the house. Eventually Lena followed her example, capturing Lily en route. The scene must have consumed all of twenty minutes. The Plantons were so mirth-stricken that they had to sit down and rest under the washing-shed. Of all the inhabitants of The Enormous Room, Fritz and Harree and Pompom and Bathhouse John enjoyed it most. I should include Jan, whose chin nearly rested on the window-sill with the little body belonging to it fluttering in an ugly interested way all the time. That Bathhouse John's interest was largely cynical is evidenced by the remarks which he threw out between spittings---'Une section mesdames!"---A la gare!' 'Aux armes tout le monde!' etc. With the exception of these enthusiastic watchers, the other captives evidenced vague amusement---excepting Count Bragard, who said with lofty disgust that it was 'no better than a bloody knocking 'ouse, Mr. Cummings,' and Monsieur Petairs, whose annoyance amounted to agony. Of course these twain were, comparatively speaking, old men ...
The four female incorrigibles encountered less difficulty in attaining cabinot than any four specimens of incorrigibility among les hommes. Not only were they placed in dungeon vile with a frequency which amounted to continuity; their sentences were far more severe than those handed out to the men. Up to the time of my little visit to La Ferté I had innocently supposed that in referring to women as 'the weaker sex' a man was strictly within his rights. La Ferté, if it did nothing else for my intelligence, rid it of this over-powering error. I recall, for example, a period of sixteen days and nights spent (during my stay) by the woman Lena in the cabinot. It was either toward the latter part of October or the early part of November that this occurred, I will not be sure which. The dampness of the autumn was as terrible, under normal conditions---that is to say in The Enormous Room---as any climatic eccentricity which I have ever experienced. We had a wood-burning stove in the middle of the room, which antiquated apparatus was kept going all day, to the vast discomfort of eyes and noses not to mention throats and lungs---the pungent smoke filling the room with an atmosphere next to unbreathable, but tolerated for the simple reason that it stood between ourselves and death. For even with the stove going full blast the walls never ceased to sweat and even trickle, so overpowering was the dampness. By night the chill was to myself---fortunately bedded at least eighteen inches from the floor and sleeping in my clothes; bed-roll, blankets, and all, under and over me and around me---not merely perceptible but desolating. Once my bed broke, and I spent the night perforce on the floor with only my paillasse under me; to awake finally in the whitish dawn perfectly helpless with rheumatism. Yet with the exception of my bed and B.'s bed and a wooden bunk which belonged to Bathhouse John, every paillasse lay directly on the floor; moreover the men who slept thus were three-quarters of them miserably clad, nor had they anything beyond their light-weight blankets ---whereas I had a complete outfit including a big fur coat, which I had taken with me (as previously described) from the Section Sanitaire. The morning after my night spent on the floor I pondered, having nothing to do and being unable to move, upon the subject of my physical endurance---wondering just how the men about me, many of them beyond middle age, some extremely delicate, in all not more than five or six as rugged constitutionally as myself, lived through the nights in The Enormous Room. Also I recollected glancing through an open door into the women's quarters, at the risk of being noticed by the planton in whose charge I was at the time (who, fortunately, was stupid even for a planton, else I should have been well punished for my curiosity) and beholding paillasses identical in all respects with ours reposing on the floor; and I thought, If it is marvellous that old men and sick men can stand this and not die, it is certainly miraculous that girls of eleven and fifteen, and the baby which I saw once being caressed out in the women's cour with unspeakable gentleness by a little putain whose name I do not know, and the dozen or so oldish females whom I have often seen on promenade---can, stand this and not die. These things I mention not to excite the reader's pity nor yet his indignation; I mention them because I do not know of any other way to indicate---it is no more than indicating---the significance of the torture perpetrated under the Directeur's direction in the case of the girl Lena. If incidentally it throws light on the personality of the torturer I shall be gratified.
Lena's confinement in the cabinot---which dungeon I have already attempted to describe but to whose filth and slime no words can begin to do justice---was in this case solitary. Once a day, of an afternoon and always at the time when all the men were upstairs after the second promenade (which gave the writer of this history an exquisite chance to see an atrocity at first-hand), Lena was taken out of the cabinot by three plantons and permitted a half-hour promenade just outside the door of the building, or in the same locality---delimited by barbed-wire on one side and the washing-shed on another---made famous by the scene of inebriety above described. Punctually at the expiration of thirty minutes she was shoved back into the cabinot by the plantons. Every day for sixteen days I saw her; noted the indestructible bravado of her gait and carriage, the unchanging timbre of her terrible laughter in response to the salutation of an inhabitant of The Enormous Room (for there were at least six men who spoke to her daily, and took their pain sec and their cabinot in punishment therefor with the pride of a soldier who takes the médaille militaire in recompense for his valour) ; noted the increasing pallor of her flesh; watched the skin gradually assume a distinct greenish tint (a greenishness which I cannot describe save that it suggested putrefaction) ; heard the coughing to which she had been always subject grow thicker and deeper till it doubled her up every few minutes, creasing her body as you crease a piece of paper with your thumb-nail, preparatory to tearing it in two---and I realized fully and irrevocably and for perhaps the first time the meaning of civilization. And I realized that it was true---as I had previously only suspected it to be true---that in finding us unworthy of helping to carry forward the banner of progress, alias the tricolour, the inimitable and excellent French Government was conferring upon B. and myself-albeit with other intent---the ultimate compliment.
And the Machine-Fixer, whose opinion of this blonde putain grew and increased and soared with every day of her martyrdom till the Machine-Fixer's former classification of les femmes exploded and disappeared entirely---the Machine-Fixer who would have fallen on his little knees to Lena had she given him a chance, and kissed the hem of her striped skirt in an ecstasy of adoration---told me that Lena on being finally released walked upstairs herself, holding hard to the banister without a look for anyone, 'having eyes as big as tea-cups.' He added, with tears in his own eyes:
'M'sieu' Jean, a woman.'
I recall perfectly being in the kitchen one day, hiding from the eagle-eye of the Black Holster and enjoying a talk on the economic consequences of war, said talk being delivered by Afrique. As a matter of fact, I was not in the cuisine proper, but in the little room which I have mentioned previously. The door into the cuisine was shut. The sweetly soft odour of newly cut wood was around me. And all the time that Afrique was talking I heard clearly, through the shut door and through the kitchen wall and through the locked door of the cabinot situated directly across the ball from la cuisine, the insane, gasping voice of a girl singing and yelling and screeching and laughing. Finally I interrupted my speaker to ask what on earth was the matter in the cabinot?---'C'est la femme allemande qui s'appelle Lily,' Afrique briefly answered. A little later BANG went the cabinot door, and ROAR went the familiar coarse voice of the Directeur. It disturbs him, the noise, Afrique said. The cabinot door slammed. There was silence. Heavily steps ascended. Then the song began again, a little more insane than before; the laughter a little wilder. . . .'You can't stop her,' Afrique said admiringly. 'A great voice Mademoiselle has, eh? So, as I was saying, the national debt being conditioned---'
But the experience, à propos les femmes, which meant and will always mean more to me than any other, the scene which is a little more unbelievable than perhaps any scene that it has ever been my privilege to witness, the incident which (possibly more than any other) revealed to me those unspeakable foundations upon which are builded with infinite care such at once ornate and comfortable structures as La Gloire and Le Patriotisme---occurred in this wise.
Les hommes, myself among them, were leaving la cour for The Enormous Room under the watchful eye (as always) of a planton. As we defiled through the little gate in the barbed-wire fence we heard, apparently just inside the building whither we were proceeding on our way to The Great Upstairs, a tremendous sound of mingled screams, curses and crashings. The planton of the day was not only stupid---he was a little deaf ; to his ears this hideous racket had not, as nearly as one could see, penetrated. At all events he marched us along toward the door with utmost plantonic satisfaction and composure. I managed to insert myself in the fore of the procession, being eager to witness the scene within; and reached the door almost simultaneously with Fritz, Harree and two or three others. I forget which of us opened it. I will never forget what I saw as I crossed the threshold.
The hall was filled with stifling smoke; the smoke which straw makes when it is set on fire, a peculiarly nauseous, choking, whitish-blue smoke. This smoke was so dense that only after some moments could I make out, with bleeding eyes and wounded lungs, anything whatever. What I saw was this: five or six plantons were engaged in carrying out of the nearest cabinot two girls, who looked perfectly dead. Their bodies were absolutely limp. Their hands dragged foolishly along the floor as they were carried. Their upward white faces dangled loosely upon their necks. Their crumpled figures sagged in the plantons' arms. I recognized Lily and Renée. Lena I made out at a little distance tottering against the door of the cuisine opposite the cabinot, her hay-coloured head drooping and swaying slowly upon the open breast of her shirt-waist, her legs far apart and propping with difficulty her hinging body, her hands spasmodically searching for the knob of the door. The smoke proceeded from the open cabinot in great ponderous murdering clouds. In one of these clouds, erect and tense and beautiful as an angel---her wildly shouting face framed in its huge night of dishevelled hair, her deep sexual voice, hoarsely strident above the din and smoke, shouting fiercely through the darkness-stood, triumphantly and colossally young, Celina. Facing her, its clenched pinkish fists raised high above its savagely bristling head in a big brutal gesture of impotence and rage and anguish---the Fiend Himself paused, quivering, on the fourth stair from the bottom of the flight leading to the women's quarters. Through the smoke the great bright voice of Celina rose at him, hoarse and rich and sudden and intensely luxurious, a quick throaty accurate slaying deepness:
and over and beneath and around the voice I saw frightened faces of women hanging in the smoke, some screaming with their lips apart and their eyes closed, some staring with wide eyes; and among the women's faces I discovered the large placid interested expression of the Gestionnaire and the nervous clicking eyes of the Surveillant. And there was a shout-it was the Black Holster shouting at us as we stood transfixed
'Who the devil brought les hommes in here? Get up with you where you belong, you...'
---And he made a rush at us, and we dodged in the smoke and passed slowly up the hall, looking behind us, speechless to a man with the admiration of Terror, till we reached the further flight of stairs; and mounted slowly with the din falling below us, ringing in our ears, beating upon our brains---mounted slowly with quickened blood and pale faces---to the peace of The Enormous Room.
I spoke with both balayeurs that night. They told me, independently, the same story: the four incorrigibles had been locked in the cabinot ensemble. They made so much noise, particularly Lily, that the plantons were afraid the Directeur would be disturbed. Accordingly the plantons got together and stuffed the contents of a paillasse in the cracks around the door, and particularly in the crack under the door wherein cigarettes were commonly inserted by friends of the entombed. This process made the cabinot air-tight. But the Plantons were not taking any chances on disturbing Monsieur le Directeur. They carefully lighted the paillasse at a number of points and stood back to see the result of their efforts. So soon as the smoke found its way inward the singing was supplanted by coughing; then the coughing stopped. Then nothing was heard. Then Celina began crying out within---'Open the door, Lily and Renée are dead'---and the plantons were frightened. After some debate they decided to open the door---out poured the smoke, and in it Celina, whose voice in a fraction of a second roused everyone in the building. The Black Holster wrestled with her and tried to knock her down by a blow on the mouth; but she escaped, bleeding a little, to the foot of the stairs---simultaneously with the advent of the Directeur, who for once had found someone beyond the power of his weapon. Fear, someone in contact with whose indescribable Youth the puny threats of death withered between his lips, someone finally completely and unutterably Alive whom the Lie upon his slavering tongue could not kill.
I do not need to say that, as soon as the girls who had fainted could be brought to, they joined Lena in pain sec for many days to come; and that Celina was overpowered by six plantons---at the order of Monsieur le Directeur---and reincarcerated in the cabinot adjoining that from which she had made her velocitous exit---reincarcerated without food for twenty-four hours. 'Mais, M'sieu' Jean,' the Machine-Fixer said trembling, 'Vous savez elle est forte. She gave the six of them a fight, I tell you. And three of them went to the doctor as a result of their efforts, including le vieux (The Black Holster). But of course they succeeded in beating her up, six men upon one woman. She was beaten badly, I tell you, before she gave in. Msieu' Jean, ils sont tous---les plantons et le Directeur Lui-Même et le Surveillant et le Gestionnaire et tous---ils sonts des---' and he said very nicely what they were, and lit his little black pipe with a crisp curving upward gesture, and shook like a blade of grass.
With which specimen of purely mediæval torture I leave the subject of 'Women, and embark upon the quieter if no less enlightening subject of Sunday.
Sunday, it will be recalled, was Monsieur le Directeur's third weapon. That is to say: lest the ordinarily tantalizing proximity of les femmes should not inspire les hommes to deeds which placed the doers automatically. in the clutches of himself, his subordinates, and la punition, it was arranged that once a week the tantalizing proximity aforesaid should be supplanted by a positively maddening approach to coincidence. Or in other words, les hommes and les femmes might for an hour or less enjoy the same exceedingly small room; for purposes of course of devotion---it being obvious to Monsieur le Directeur that the representatives of both sexes at La Ferté Macé were inherently of a strongly devotional nature. And lest the temptation to err in such moments be deprived, through a certain aspect of compulsion, of its complete force, the attendance of such strictly devotional services was made optional.
The uplifting services to which I refer took place in that very room which (the night of my arrival) had yielded me my paillasse under the Surveillant's direction. It may have been thirty feet long and twenty wide. At one end was an altar at the top of several wooden stairs, with a large candle on each side. To the right as you entered a number of benches were placed to accommodate les femmes. Les hommes upon entering took off their caps and stood over against the left wall so as to leave between them and les femmes an alley perhaps five feet wide. In this alley stood the Black Holster with his képi firmly resting upon his head, his arms folded, his eyes spying to left and right in order to intercept any signals exchanged between the sheep and goats. Those who elected to enjoy spiritual things left the cour and their morning promenade after about an hour of promenading, while the materially minded remained to finish the promenade; or if one declined the promenade entirely (as frequently occurred owing to the fact that weather conditions on Sunday were invariably more indescribable than usual) a planton mounted to The Enormous Room and shouted 'La Messe!' several times; whereat the devotees lined up and were carefully conducted to the scene of spiritual operations.
The priest was changed every week. His assistant (whom I had the indescribable pleasure of seeing only upon Sundays) was always the same. It was his function to pick the priest up when he fell down after tripping upon his robe, to hand him things before he wanted them, to ring a huge bell, to interrupt the peculiarly divine portions of the service with a squeaking of his shoes, to gaze about from time to time upon the worshippers for purposes of intimidation, and finally---most important of all---to blow out the two big candles at the very earliest opportunity, in the interests (doubtless) of economy. As he was a short, fattish, ancient, strangely soggy creature, and as his longish black suit was somewhat too big for him, he executed a series of profound efforts in extinguishing the candles. In fact he had to climb part-way up the candles before he could get at the flame; at which moment, he looked very much like a weakly and fat boy (for he was obviously in his second or fourth childhood) climbing a flag-pole. At moments of leisure he abased his fatty whitish jowl and contemplated with watery eyes the floor in front of his highly polished boots, having first placed his ugly chubby hands together behind his most ample back.
Dimanche: green murmurs in coldness. Surplice fiercely fearful, praying on his bony both knees, crossing himself ... The Fake French Soldier, alias Garibaldi, beside him, a little face filled with terror ... the Bell cranks the sharp-nosed curé on his knees ... titter from bench of whores---and that reminds me of a Sunday afternoon on our backs spent with the wholeness of a hill in Chevancourt, discovering a great apple pie, B. and Jean Stahl and Maurice le Menuisier and myself; and the sun falling roundly before us.
---And then one Dimanche a new high old man with a sharp violet face and green hair---'Vous êtes libres, mes enfants, de faire l'immortalité---Songez, songez donc---L'Eternité est une existence sans durée-Toujours le Paradis, toujours l'Enfer' (to the silently roaring whores) 'Le ciel est fait pour vous'---and the Belgian ten-foot farmer spat three times and wiped them with his foot, his nose dripping; and the nigger shot a white oyster into a far-off scarlet handkerchief-and the Man's strings came untied and he sidled crab-like down the steps---the two candles wiggle a strenuous softness ...
In another chapter I will tell you about the nigger.
And another Sunday I saw three tiny old females stumble forward, three very formerly and even once bonnets perched upon three wizened skulls, and flop clumsily before the Man, and take the wafer hungrily into their leathery faces.
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