Part 4 out of 5
Moreover, as I have said, Count Bragard had been playing up to the poor
Spanish Whoremaster to beat the band. Every day had he sat on a little
stool beside the rolypoly millionaire, and written from dictation letter
after letter in French--with which language the rolypoly was sadly
unfamiliar.... And when next day Count Bragard took back his treasure of
treasures, his personal water glass, remarking briefly that he needed it
once again, I was not surprised. And when, a week or so later, he left--I
was not surprised to have Mexique come up to us and placidly remark:
"I give dat feller five francs. Tell me he send me overcoat, very good
overcoat. But say: Please no tell anybody come from me. Please tell
everybody your family send it." And with a smile, "I t'ink dat feller
Nor was I surprised to see, some weeks later, the poor Spanish
Whoremaster rending his scarce hair as he lay in bed of a morning. And
Mexique said with a smile:
"Dat feller give dat English feller one hundred francs. Now he sorry."
All of which meant merely that Count Bragard should have spelt his name,
not Bra-, but with an l.
And I wonder to this day that the only letter of mine which ever reached
America and my doting family should have been posted by this highly
entertaining personage en ville, whither he went as a trusted inhabitant
of La Ferte to do a few necessary errands for himself; whither he
returned with a good deal of colour in his cheeks and a good deal of _vin
rouge_ in his guts; going and returning with Tommy, the _planton_ who
brought him The Daily Mail every day until Bragard couldn't afford it,
after which either B. and I or Jean le Negre took it off Tommy's
hands--Tommy, for whom we had a delightful name which I sincerely regret
being unable to tell, Tommy, who was an Englishman for all his French
_planton's_ uniform and worshipped the ground on which the Count stood;
Tommy, who looked like a boiled lobster and had tears in his eyes when he
escorted his idol back to captivity.... _Mirabile dictu_, so it was.
Well, such was the departure of a great man from among us.
And now, just to restore the reader's faith in human nature, let me
mention an entertaining incident which occurred during the latter part of
my stay at La Ferte Mace. Our society had been gladdened--or at any rate
galvanized--by the biggest single contribution in its history; the
arrival simultaneously of six purely extraordinary persons, whose names
alone should be of more than general interest: The Magnifying Glass, The
Trick Raincoat, The Messenger Boy, The Hat, The Alsatian, The
Whitebearded Raper and His Son. In order to give the reader an idea of
the situation created by these _arrives_, which situation gives the
entrance of the Washing Machine Man--the entertaining incident, in other
words--its full and unique flavour, I must perforce sketch briefly each
member of a truly imposing group. Let me say at once that, so terrible an
impression did the members make, each inhabitant of The Enormous Room
rushed at break-neck speed to his _paillasse_; where he stood at bay,
assuming as frightening an attitude as possible. The Enormous Room was
full enough already, in all conscience. Between sixty and seventy
mattresses, with their inhabitants and, in nearly every case, baggage,
occupied it so completely as scarcely to leave room for _le poele_ at the
further end and the card table in the centre. No wonder we were struck
with terror upon seeing the six _nouveaux_. Judas immediately protested
to the _planton_ who brought them up that there were no places, getting a
roar in response and the door slammed in his face to boot. But the reader
is not to imagine that it was the number alone of the arrivals which
inspired fear and distrust--their appearance was enough to shake anyone's
sanity. I do protest that never have I experienced a feeling of more
profound distrust than upon this occasion; distrust of humanity in
general and in particular of the following individuals:
An old man shabbily dressed in a shiny frock coat, upon whose peering and
otherwise very aged face a pair of dirty spectacles rested. The first
thing he did, upon securing a place, was to sit upon his mattress in a
professorial manner, tremulously extract a journal from his left coat
pocket, tremblingly produce a large magnifying glass from his upper right
vest pocket, and forget everything. Subsequently, I discovered him
promenading the room with an enormous expenditure of feeble energy,
taking tiny steps flat-footedly and leaning in when he rounded a corner
as if he were travelling at terrific speed. He suffered horribly from
rheumatism, could scarcely move after a night on the floor, and must have
been at least sixty-seven years old.
Second, a palish, foppish, undersized, prominent-nosed creature who
affected a deep musical voice and the cut of whose belted raincoat gave
away his profession--he was a pimp, and proud of it, and immediately upon
his arrival boasted thereof, and manifested altogether as disagreeable a
species of bullying vanity as I ever (save in the case of The Fighting
Sheeney) encountered. He got his from Jean le Negre, as the reader will
Third, a super-Western-Union-Messenger type of ancient-youth,
extraordinarily unhandsome if not positively ugly. He had a weak pimply
grey face, was clad in a brownish uniform, puttees (on pipestem calves),
and a regular Messenger Boy cap. Upon securing a place he instantly went
to the card-table, seated himself hurriedly, pulled out a batch of
blanks, and wrote a telegram to (I suppose) himself. Then he returned to
his _paillasse_, lay down with apparently supreme contentment, and fell
Fourth, a tiny old man who looked like a caricature of an East Side
second-hand clothes dealer--having a long beard, a long, worn and dirty
coat reaching just to his ankles, and a small derby hat on his head. The
very first night his immediate neighbour complained that "Le Chapeau" (as
he was christened by The Zulu) was guilty of fleas. A great tempest
ensued immediately. A _planton_ was hastily summoned. He arrived, heard
the case, inspected The Hat (who lay on his _paillasse_ with his derby
on, his hand far down the neck of his shirt, scratching busily and
protesting occasionally his entire innocence), uttered (being the Black
Holster) an oath of disgust, and ordered The Frog to "_couper les cheveux
de suite et la barbe aussi; apres il va au bain, le vieux_." The Frog
approached and gently requested The Hat to seat himself upon a chair--the
better of two chairs boasted by The Enormous Room. The Frog, successor to
The Barber, brandished his scissors. The Hat lay and scratched. "_Allez,
Nom de Dieu_" the _planton_ roared. The poor Hat arose trembling, assumed
a praying attitude; and began to talk in a thick and sudden manner.
"_Asseyez-vous la, tete de cochon_." The pitiful Hat obeyed, clutching
his derby to his head in both withered hands. "Take off your hat, you son
of a bitch," the _planton_ yelled. "I don't want to," the tragic Hat
whimpered. BANG! the derby hit the floor, bounded upward and lay still.
"Proceed," the orderly thundered to The Frog, who regarded him with a
perfectly inscrutable expression on his extremely keen face, then turned
to his subject, snickered with the scissors, and fell to. Locks ear-long
fell in crisp succession. Pete the Shadow, standing beside the barber,
nudged me; and I looked; and I beheld upon the floor the shorn locks
rising and curling with a movement of their own.... "Now for the beard,"
said the Black Holster.--"No, no, _Monsieur, s'il vous plait, pas ma
barbe, monsieur_"--The Hat wept, trying to kneel.--"_Ta gueule_ or I'll
cut your throat," the _planton_ replied amiably; and The Frog, after
another look, obeyed. And lo, the beard squirmed gently upon the floor,
alive with a rhythm of its own; squirmed and curled crisply as it lay....
When The Hat was utterly shorn, he was bathed and became comparatively
unremarkable, save for the worn long coat which he clutched about him,
shivering. And he borrowed five francs from me twice, and paid me
punctually each time when his own money arrived, and presented me with
chocolate into the bargain, tipping his hat quickly and bowing (as he
always did whenever he addressed anyone). Poor Old Hat, B. and I and the
Zulu were the only men at La Ferte who liked you.
Fifth, a fat, jolly, decently dressed man.--He had been to a camp where
everyone danced, because an entire ship's crew was interned there, and
the crew were enormously musical, and the captain (having sold his ship)
was rich and tipped the Director regularly; so everyone danced night and
day, and the crew played, for the crew had brought their music with
them.--He had a way of borrowing the paper (_Le Matin_) which we bought
from one of the lesser _plantons_ who went to the town and got _Le Matin_
there; borrowing it before we had read it--by the sunset. And his
favourite observations were:
"It's a rotten country. Dirty weather."
Fifth and sixth, a vacillating, staggering, decrepit creature with
wildish white beard and eyes, who had been arrested--incredibly
enough--for "rape." With him his son, a pleasant youth quiet of
demeanour, inquisitive of nature, with whom we sometimes conversed on the
subject of the English Army.
Such were the individuals whose concerted arrival taxed to its utmost the
capacity of The Enormous Room. And now for my incident:
In the doorway, one day shortly after the arrival of the gentlemen
mentioned, quietly stood a well-dressed handsomely middle-aged man, with
a sensitive face culminating in a groomed Van Dyck beard. I thought for a
moment that the Mayor of Orne, or whatever his title is, had dropped in
for an informal inspection of The Enormous Room. Thank God, I said to
myself, it has never looked so chaotically filthy since I have had the
joy of inhabiting it. And _sans blague_, The Enormous Room _was_ in a
state of really supreme disorder; shirts were thrown everywhere, a few
twine clothes lines supported various pants, handkerchiefs and stockings,
the stove was surrounded by a gesticulating group of nearly undressed
prisoners, the stink was actually sublime.
As the door closed behind him, the handsome man moved slowly and
vigorously up The Enormous Room. His eyes were as big as turnips. His
neat felt hat rose with the rising of his hair. His mouth opened in a
gesture of unutterable astonishment. His knees trembled with surprise and
terror, the creases of his trousers quivering. His hands lifted
themselves slowly outward and upward till they reached the level of his
head; moved inward till they grasped his head: and were motionless. In a
deep awe-struck resonant voice he exclaimed simply and sincerely:
"_Nom de nom de nom de nom de nom de DIEU!_"
Which introduces the reader to The Washing Machine Man, a Hollander,
owner of a store at Brest where he sold the highly _utiles_ contrivances
which gave him his name. He, as I remember, had been charged with aiding
and abetting in the case of escaping deserters--but I know a better
reason for his arrest: undoubtedly _le gouvernement francais_ caught him
one day in the act of inventing a super-washing machine, in fact, a
Whitewashing machine, for the private use of the Kaiser and His
Which brings us, if you please, to the first Delectable Mountain.
One day somebody and I were "catching water" for Monsieur the Chef.
"Catching water" was ordinarily a mixed pleasure. It consisted, as I have
mentioned, in the combined pushing and pulling of a curiously primitive
two-wheeled cart over a distance of perhaps three hundred yards to a kind
of hydrant situated in a species of square upon which the mediaeval
structure known as Porte (or Camp) de Triage faced stupidly and
threateningly. A _planton_ always escorted the catchers through a big
door, between the stone wall, which backed the men's _cour_ and the end
of the building itself, or, in other words, the canteen. The ten-foot
stone wall was, like every other stone wall, connected with La Ferte,
topped with three feet of barbed wire. The door by which we exited with
the water-wagon to the street outside was at least eight feet high,
adorned with several large locks. One pushing behind, one pulling in the
shafts, we rushed the wagon over a sort of threshold or sill and into the
street; and were immediately yelled at by the _planton_, who commanded us
to stop until he had locked the door. We waited until told to proceed;
then yanked and shoved the reeling vehicle up the street to our right,
that is to say, along the wall of the building, but on the outside. All
this was pleasant and astonishing. To feel oneself, however temporarily,
outside the eternal walls in a street connected with a rather selfish and
placid looking little town (whereof not more than a dozen houses were
visible) gave the prisoner an at once silly and uncanny sensation, much
like the sensation one must get when he starts to skate for the first
time in a dozen years or so. The street met two others in a moment, and
here was a very nourishing sumach bush (as I guess) whose berries shocked
the stunned eye with a savage splash of vermilion. Under this colour one
discovered the Mecca of water-catchers in the form of an iron contrivance
operating by means of a stubby lever which, when pressed down, yielded
grudgingly a spout of whiteness. The contrivance was placed in
sufficiently close proximity to a low wall so that one of the catchers
might conveniently sit on the wall and keep the water spouting with a
continuous pressure of his foot, while the other catcher manipulated a
tin pail with telling effect. Having filled the barrel which rode on the
two wagon wheels, we turned it with some difficulty and started it down
the street with the tin pail on top; the man in the shafts leaning back
with all his might to offset a certain velocity promoted by the down
grade, while the man behind tugged helpingly at the barrel itself. On
reaching the door we skewed the machine skillfully to the left, thereby
bringing it to a complete standstill, and waited for the _planton_ to
unlock the locks; which done, we rushed it violently over the threshold,
turned left, still running, and came to a final stop in front of the
kitchen. Here stood three enormous wooden tubs. We backed the wagon
around; then one man opened a spigot in the rear of the barrel, and at
the same time the other elevated the shafts in a clever manner, inducting
the _jet d'eau_ to hit one of the tubs. One tub filled, we switched the
stream wittily to the next. To fill the three tubs (they were not always
all of them empty) required as many as six or eight delightful trips.
After which one entered the _cuisine_ and got his well-earned
reward--coffee with sugar.
I have remarked that catching water was a mixed pleasure. The mixedness
of the pleasure came from certain highly respectable citizens, and more
often citizenesses, of _la ville_ de La Ferte Mace; who had a habit of
endowing the poor water-catchers with looks which I should not like to
remember too well, at the same moment clutching whatever infants they
carried or wore or had on leash spasmodically to them. I never ceased to
be surprised by the scorn, contempt, disgust and frequently sheer
ferocity manifested in the male and particularly in the female faces. All
the ladies wore, of course, black; they were wholly unbeautiful of face
or form, some of them actually repellant; not one should I, even under
more favourable circumstances, have enjoyed meeting. The first time I
caught water everybody in the town was returning from church, and a
terrific sight it was. _Vive la bourgeoisie_, I said to myself, ducking
the shafts of censure by the simple means of hiding my face behind the
moving water barrel.
But one day--as I started to inform the reader--somebody and I were
catching water, and, in fact, had caught our last load, and were
returning with it down the street; when I, who was striding rapidly
behind trying to lessen with both hands the impetus of the machine,
suddenly tripped and almost fell with surprise--
On the curb of the little unbeautiful street a figure was sitting, a
female figure dressed in utterly barbaric pinks and vermilions, having a
dark shawl thrown about her shoulders; a positively Arabian face
delimited by a bright coif of some tenuous stuff, slender golden hands
holding with extraordinary delicacy what appeared to be a baby of not
more than three months old; and beside her a black-haired child of
perhaps three years and beside this child a girl of fourteen, dressed
like the woman in crashing hues, with the most exquisite face I had ever
_Nom de Dieu_, I thought vaguely. Am I or am I not completely asleep? And
the man in the shafts craned his neck in stupid amazement, and the
_planton_ twirled his moustache and assumed that intrepid look which only
a _planton_ (or a _gendarme_) perfectly knows how to assume in the
presence of female beauty.
That night The Wanderer was absent from _la soupe_, having been called by
Apollyon to the latter's office upon a matter of superior import.
Everyone was abuzz with the news. The gypsy's wife and three children,
one a baby at the breast, were outside demanding to be made prisoners.
Would the Directeur allow it? They had been told a number of times by
_plantons_ to go away, as they sat patiently waiting to be admitted to
captivity. No threats, pleas nor arguments had availed. The wife said she
was tired of living without her husband--roars of laughter from all the
Belgians and most of the Hollanders, I regret to say Pete included--and
wanted merely and simply to share his confinement. Moreover, she said,
without him she was unable to support his children! and it was better
that they should grow up with their father as prisoners than starve to
death without him. She would not be moved. The Black Holster told her he
would use force--she answered nothing. Finally she had been admitted
pending judgment. _Also sprach_, highly excited, the _balayeur_.
"Looks like a--hoor," was the Belgian-Dutch verdict, a verdict which was
obviously due to the costume of the lady in question almost as much as to
the untemperamental natures sojourning at La Ferte. B. and I agreed that
she and her children were the most beautiful people we had ever seen, or
would ever be likely to see. So _la soupe_ ended, and everybody belched
and gasped and trumpeted up to The Enormous Room as usual.
That evening, about six o'clock, I heard a man crying as if his heart
were broken. I crossed The Enormous Room. Half-lying on his _paillasse_,
his great beard pouring upon his breast, his face lowered, his entire
body shuddering with sobs, lay The Wanderer. Several of the men were
about him, standing in attitudes ranging from semi-amusement to stupid
sympathy, listening to the anguish which--as from time to time he lifted
his majestic head--poured slowly and brokenly from his lips. I sat down
beside him. And he told me: "I bought him for six hundred francs, and I
sold him for four hundred and fifty ... it was not a horse of this race,
but of the race" (I could not catch the word) "as long as from here to
that post. I cried for a quarter of an hour just as if my child were dead
... and it is seldom I weep over horses--I say: you are going, Jewel, _au
r'oir et bon jour._" ...
The vain little dancer interrupted about "broken-down horses" ...
"_Excuses donc_--this was no disabled horse, such as goes to the
front--these are some horses--pardon, whom you give eat, this, it is
colie, that, the other, it's colie--this never--he could go forty
kilometres a day...."
One of the strongest men I have seen in my life is crying because he has
had to sell his favourite horse. No wonder _les hommes_ in general are
not interested. Someone said: "Be of good cheer, Demestre, your wife and
kids are well enough."
"Yes--they are not cold; they have a bed like that" (a high gesture
toward the quilt of many colours on which we were sitting, such a quilt
as I have not seen since; a feathery deepness soft to the touch as air in
Spring), "which is worth three times this of mine--but _tu comprends_,
it's not hot these mornings"--then he dropped his head, and lifted it
again, crying, crying.
"_Et mes outils_, I had many--and my garments--where are they put,
_ou--ou? Kis!_ And I had _chemises_ ... this is poor" (looking at himself
as a prince might look at his disguise)--"and like this, that--where?"
"_Si_ the wagon is not sold ... I never will stay here for _la duree de
la guerre_. No--bahsht! To resume, that is why I need...."
(more than upright in the priceless bed--the twice streaming darkness of
his beard, his hoarse sweetness of voice--his immense perfect face and
deeply softnesses eyes--pouring voice)
"my wife sat over there, she spoke to No one and bothered Nobody--why was
my wife taken here and shut up? Had she done anything? There is a wife
who _fait la putain_ and turns, to everyone and another, whom I bring
another tomorrow ... but a woman who loves only her husband, who waits
for no one but her husband--"
(the tone bulged, and the eyes together)
"--_Ces cigarettes ne fument pas!_" I added an apology, having presented
him with the package. "Why do you shell out these? They cost fifteen
sous, you may spend for them if you like, you understand what I'm saying?
But some time when you have nothing" (extraordinary gently) "what then?
Better to save for that day ... better to buy _du tabac_ and _faire_
yourself; these are made of tobacco dust."
And there was someone to the right who was saying: "To-morrow is Sunday"
... wearily. The King, lying upon his huge quilt, sobbing now only a
"So--ah--he was born on a Sunday--my wife is nursing him, she gives him
the breast" (the gesture charmed) "she said to them she would not eat if
they gave her that--that's not worth anything--meat is necessary every
day ..." he mused. I tried to go.
"Sit there" (graciousness of complete gesture. The sheer kingliness of
poverty. He creased the indescribably soft _couverture_ for me and I sat
and looked into his forehead bounded by the cube of square sliced hair.
Blacker than Africa. Than imagination).
After this evening I felt that possibly I knew a little of The Wanderer,
or he of me.
The Wanderer's wife and his two daughters and his baby lived in the
women's quarters. I have not described and cannot describe these four.
The little son of whom he was tremendously proud slept with his father in
the great quilts in The Enormous Room. Of The Wanderer's little son I may
say that he had lolling buttons of eyes sewed on gold flesh, that he had
a habit of turning cart-wheels in one-third of his father's trousers,
that we called him The Imp. He ran, he teased, he turned handsprings, he
got in the way, and he even climbed the largest of the scraggly trees in
the _cour_ one day. "You will fall," Monsieur Peters (whose old eyes had
a fondness for this irrepressible creature) remarked with
conviction.--"Let him climb," his father said quietly. "I have climbed
trees. I have fallen out of trees. I am alive." The Imp shinnied like a
monkey, shouting and crowing, up a lean gnarled limb--to the amazement of
the very _planton_ who later tried to rape Celina and was caught. This
_planton_ put his gun in readiness and assumed an eager attitude of
immutable heroism. "Will you shoot?" the father inquired politely.
"Indeed it would be a big thing of which you might boast all your life:
I, a _planton_, shot and killed a six-year-old child in a tree."--"_C'est
enmerdant_," the _planton_ countered, in some confusion--"he may be
trying to escape. How do I know?"--"Indeed, how do you know anything?"
the father murmured quietly. "It's a _mystere_." The Imp, all at once,
fell. He hit the muddy ground with a disagreeable thud. The breath was
utterly knocked out of him. The Wanderer picked him up kindly. His son
began, with the catching of his breath, to howl uproariously. "Serves him
right, the ---- jackanapes," a Belgian growled.--"I told you so, didn't
I?" Monsieur Petairs worringly cried: "I said he would fall out of that
tree!"--"Pardon, you were right, I think," the father smiled pleasantly.
"Don't be sad, my little son, everybody falls out of trees, they're made
for that by God," and he patted The Imp, squatting in the mud and
smiling. In five minutes The Imp was trying to scale the shed. "Come down
or I fire," the _planton_ cried nervously ... and so it was with The
Wanderer's son from morning till night. "Never," said Monsieur Pet-airs
with solemn desperation, "have I seen such an incorrigible child, a
perfectly incorrigible child," and he shook his head and immediately
dodged a missile which had suddenly appeared from nowhere.
Night after night The Imp would play around our beds, where we held court
with our chocolate and our candles; teasing us, cajoling us, flattering
us, pretending tears, feigning insult, getting lectures from Monsieur
Peters on the evil of cigarette smoking, keeping us in a state of
perpetual inquietude. When he couldn't think of anything else to do he
sang at the top of his clear bright voice:
"_C'est la guerre
faut pas t'en faire_"
and turned a handspring or two for emphasis.... Mexique once cuffed him
for doing something peculiarly mischievous, and he set up a great
crying--instantly The Wanderer was standing over Mexique, his hands
clenched, his eyes sparkling--it took a good deal of persuasion to
convince the parent that his son was in error, meanwhile Mexique placidly
awaited his end ... and neither B. nor I, despite the Imp's tormentings,
could keep from laughing when he all at once with a sort of crowing cry
rushed for the nearest post, jumped upon his hands, arched his back, and
poised head-downward; his feet just touching the pillar. Bare-footed, in
a bright chemise and one-third of his father's trousers....
Being now in a class with "_les hommes maries_" The Wanderer spent most
of the day downstairs, coming up with his little son every night to sleep
in The Enormous Room. But we saw him occasionally in the _cour_; and
every other day when the dreadful cry was raised
"_Allez, tout-le-monde, 'plicher les pommes!_" and we descended, in fair
weather, to the lane between the building and the _cour_, and in foul
(very foul I should say) the dynosaur-coloured sweating walls of the
dining-room--The Wanderer would quietly and slowly appear, along with the
other _hommes maries_, and take up the peeling of the amazingly cold
potatoes which formed the _piece de resistance_ (in guise of _Soupe_) for
both women and men at La Ferte. And if the wedded males did not all of
them show up for this unagreeable task, a dreadful hullabaloo was
"_LES HOMMES MARIES!_"
and forth would more or less sheepishly issue the delinquents.
And I think The Wanderer, with his wife and children whom he loved as
never have I seen a man love anything in this world, was partly happy;
walking in the sun when there was any, sleeping with his little boy in a
great gulp of softness. And I remember him pulling his fine beard into
two darknesses--huge-sleeved, pink-checked chemise--walking kindly like a
bear--corduroy bigness of trousers, waistline always amorous of
knees--finger-ends just catching tops of enormous pockets. When he feels,
as I think, partly happy, he corrects our pronunciation of the ineffable
and smiles. And once Jean Le Negre said to him as he squatted in the
_cour_ with his little son beside him, his broad strong back as nearly
always against one of the gruesome and minute _pommiers_--
"_Barbu! j'vais couper ta barbe, barbu!_" Whereat the father answered
slowly and seriously.
"When you cut my beard you will have to cut off my head" regarding Jean
le Negre with unspeakably sensitive, tremendously deep, peculiarly soft
eyes. "My beard is finer than that; you have made it too coarse," he
gently remarked one day, looking attentively at a piece of _photographie_
which I had been caught in the act of perpetrating: whereat I bowed my
head in silent shame.
"Demestre, Josef (_femme, nee_ Feliska)" I read another day in the
Gestionnaire's book of judgment. O Monsieur le Gestionnaire, I should not
have liked to have seen those names in my book of sinners, in my album of
filth and blood and incontinence, had I been you.... O little, very
little, _gouvernement francais_, and you, the great and comfortable
_messieurs_ of the world, tell me why you have put a gypsy who dresses
like To-morrow among the squabbling pimps and thieves of yesterday....
He had been in New York one day.
One child died at sea.
"_Les landes_" he cried, towering over The Enormous Room suddenly one
night in Autumn, "_je les connais commes ma poche_--Bordeaux? _Je sais ou
que c'est._ Madrid? _Je sais ou que c'est._ Tolede? Seville? Naples? _Je
sais ou que c'est. Je les connais comme ma poche._"
He could not read. "Tell me what it tells," he said briefly and without
annoyance, when once I offered him the journal. And I took pleasure in
trying to do so.
One fine day, perhaps the finest day, I looked from a window of The
Enormous Room and saw (in the same spot that Lena had enjoyed her
half-hour promenade during confinement in the _cabinet_, as related) the
wife of The Wanderer, "_nee_ Feliska," giving his baby a bath in a pail,
while The Wanderer sat in the sun smoking. About the pail an absorbed
group of _putains_ stood. Several _plantons_ (abandoning for one instant
their plantonic demeanour) leaned upon their guns and watched. Some even
smiled a little. And the mother, holding the brownish, naked, crowing
child tenderly, was swimming it quietly to and fro, to the delight of
Celina in particular. To Celina it waved its arms greetingly. She stooped
and spoke to it. The mother smiled. The Wanderer, looking from time to
time at his wife, smoked and pondered by himself in the sunlight.
This baby was the delight of the _putains_ at all times. They used to
take turns carrying it when on promenade. The Wanderer's wife, at such
moments, regarded them with a gentle and jealous weariness.
There were two girls, as I said. One, the littlest girl I ever saw walk
and act by herself, looked exactly like a gollywog. This was because of
the huge mop of black hair. She was very pretty. She used to sit with her
mother and move her toes quietly for her own private amusement. The older
sister was as divine a creature as God in His skillful and infinite
wisdom ever created. Her intensely sexual face greeted us nearly always
as we descended _pour la soupe_. She would come up to B. and me slenderly
and ask, with the brightest and darkest eyes in the world,
and we would present her with a big or small, as the case might be,
_morceau de chocolat_. We even called her _Chocolat_. Her skin was nearly
sheer gold; her fingers and feet delicately formed: her teeth wonderfully
white; her hair incomparably black and abundant. Her lips would have
seduced, I think, _le gouvernement francais_ itself. Or any saint.
_Le gouvernement francais_ decided in its infinite but unskillful wisdom
that The Wanderer, being an inexpressibly bad man (guilty of who knows
what gentleness, strength and beauty) should suffer as much as he was
capable of suffering. In other words, it decided (through its Three Wise
Men, who formed the visiting Commission whereof I speak anon) that the
wife, her baby, her two girls, and her little son should be separated
from the husband by miles and by stone walls and by barbed wire and by
Law. Or perhaps (there was a rumour to this effect) The Three Wise Men
discovered that the father of these incredibly exquisite children was not
her lawful husband. And of course, this being the case, the utterly and
incomparably moral French Government saw its duty plainly; which duty was
to inflict the ultimate anguish of separation upon the sinners concerned.
I know The Wanderer came from _la commission_ with tears of anger in his
great eyes. I know that some days later he, along with that deadly and
poisonous criminal Monsieur Auguste and that aged archtraitor Monsieur
Pet-airs, and that incomparably wicked person Surplice, and a ragged
gentle being who one day presented us with a broken spoon which he had
found somewhere--the gift being a purely spontaneous mark of approval and
affection--who for this reason was known as The Spoonman and the vast and
immeasurable honour of departing for Precigne _pour la duree de la
guerre_. If ever I can create by some occult process of imagining a deed
so perfectly cruel as the deed perpetrated in the case of Joseph
Demestre, I shall consider myself a genius. Then let us admit that the
Three Wise Men were geniuses. And let us, also and softly, admit that it
takes a good and great government perfectly to negate mercy. And let us,
bowing our minds smoothly and darkly, repeat with Monsieur le
The Wanderer was almost insane when he heard the judgment of _la
commission_. And hereupon I must pay my respects to Monsieur Pet-airs;
whom I had ever liked, but whose spirit I had not, up to the night
preceding The Wanderer's departure, fully appreciated. Monsieur Pet-airs
sat for hours at the card-table, his glasses continually fogging,
censuring The Wanderer in tones of apparent annoyance for his frightful
weeping (and now and then himself sniffing faintly with his big red
nose); sat for hours pretending to take dictation from Joseph Demestre,
in reality composing a great letter or series of great letters to the
civil and I guess military authorities of Orne on the subject of the
injustice done to the father of four children, one a baby at the breast,
now about to be separated from all he held dear and good in this world.
"I appeal" (Monsieur Pet-airs wrote in his boisterously careful, not to
say elegant, script) "to your sense of mercy and of fair play and of
honour. It is not merely an unjust thing which is being done, not merely
an unreasonable thing, it is an unnatural thing...." As he wrote I found
it hard to believe that this was the aged and decrepit and fussing biped
whom I had known, whom I had caricatured, with whom I had talked upon
ponderous subjects (a comparison between the Belgian and French cities
with respect to their location as favouring progress and prosperity, for
example); who had with a certain comic shyness revealed to me a secret
scheme for reclaiming inundated territories by means of an extraordinary
pump "of my invention." Yet this was he, this was Monsieur Pet-airs
Lui-Meme; and I enjoyed peculiarly making his complete acquaintance for
the first and only time.
May the Heavens prosper him!
The next day The Wanderer appeared in the _cour_ walking proudly in a
shirt of solid vermilion.
He kissed his wife--excuse me, Monsieur Malvy, I should say the mother of
his children--crying very bitterly and suddenly.
The _plantons_ yelled for him to line up with the rest, who were waiting
outside the gate, bag and baggage. He covered his great king's eyes with
his long golden hands and went.
With him disappeared unspeakable sunlight, and the dark keen bright
strength of the earth.
This is the name of the second Delectable Mountain.
Zulu is he called, partly because he looks like what I have never seen,
partly because the sounds somehow relate to his personality and partly
because they seemed to please him.
He is, of all the indescribables I have known, definitely the most
completely or entirely indescribable. Then (quoth my reader) you will not
attempt to describe him, I trust.--Alas, in the medium which I am now
using a certain amount or at least quality of description is disgustingly
necessary. Were I free with a canvas and some colours ... but I am not
free. And so I will buck the impossible to the best of my ability. Which,
after all, is one way of wasting your time.
He did not come and he did not go. He drifted.
His angular anatomy expended and collected itself with an effortless
spontaneity which is the prerogative of fairies perhaps, or at any rate
of those things in which we no longer believe. But he was more. There are
certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason
that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort--things which are
always inside of us and, in fact, are us and which consequently will not
be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them--are no
longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb; an IS. The
Zulu, then, I must perforce call an IS.
In this chapter I shall pretend briefly to describe certain aspects and
attributes of an IS. Which IS we have called The Zulu, who Himself
intrinsically and indubitably escapes analysis. _Allons!_
Let me first describe a Sunday morning when we lifted our heads to the
fight of the stove-pipes.
I was awakened by a roar, a human roar, a roar such as only a Hollander
can make when a Hollander is honestly angry. As I rose from the domain of
the subconscious, the idea that the roar belonged to Bill The Hollander
became conviction. Bill The Hollander, alias America Lakes, slept next to
The Young Pole (by whom I refer to that young stupid-looking farmer with
that peaches-and-cream complexion and those black puttees who had formed
the rear rank, with the aid of The Zulu Himself, upon the arrival of
Babysnatcher, Bill, Box, Zulu, and Young Pole aforesaid). Now this same
Young Pole was a case. Insufferably vain and self-confident was he.
Monsieur Auguste palliated most of his conceited offensiveness on the
ground that he was _un garcon_; we on the ground that he was obviously
and unmistakably The Zulu's friend. This Young Pole, I remember, had me
design upon the wall over his _paillasse_ (shortly after his arrival) a
virile _soldat_ clutching a somewhat dubious flag--I made the latter from
descriptions furnished by Monsieur Auguste and The Young Pole
himself--intended, I may add, to be the flag of Poland. Underneath which
beautiful picture I was instructed to perpetrate the flourishing
"_Vive la Pologne_"
which I did to the best of my limited ability and for Monsieur Auguste's
sake. No sooner was the _photographie_ complete than The Young Pole,
patriotically elated, set out to demonstrate the superiority of his race
and nation by making himself obnoxious. I will give him this credit: he
was _pas mechant_, he was, in fact, a stupid boy. The Fighting Sheeney
temporarily took him down a peg by flooring him in the nightly "_Boxe_"
which The Fighting Sheeney instituted immediately upon the arrival of The
Trick Raincoat--a previous acquaintance of The Sheeney's at La Sante; the
similarity of occupations (or non-occupation; I refer to the profession
of pimp) having cemented a friendship between these two. But, for all
that The Young Pole's Sunday-best clothes were covered with filth, and
for all that his polished puttees were soiled and scratched by the
splintery floor of The Enormous Room (he having rolled well off the
blanket upon which the wrestling was supposed to occur), his spirit was
dashed but for the moment. He set about cleaning and polishing himself,
combing his hair, smoothing his cap--and was as cocky as ever next
morning. In fact I think he was cockier; for he took to guying Bill The
Hollander in French, with which tongue Bill was only faintly familiar and
of which, consequently, he was doubly suspicious. As The Young Pole lay
in bed of an evening after _lumieres eteintes_, he would guy his somewhat
massive neighbour in a childish almost girlish voice, shouting with
laughter when The Triangle rose on one arm and volleyed Dutch at him,
pausing whenever The Triangle's good-nature threatened to approach the
breaking point, resuming after a minute or two when The Triangle appeared
to be on the point of falling into the arms of Morpheus. This sort of
_blague_ had gone on for several nights without dangerous results. It
was, however, inevitable that sooner or later something would happen--and
as we lifted our heads on this particular Sunday morn we were not
surprised to see The Hollander himself standing over The Young Pole, with
clenched paws, wringing shoulders, and an apocalyptic face whiter than
The Young Pole seemed incapable of realising that the climax had come. He
lay on his back, cringing a little and laughing foolishly. The Zulu (who
slept next to him on our side) had, apparently, just lighted a cigarette
which projected upward from a slender holder. The Zulu's face was as
always absolutely expressionless. His chin, with a goodly growth of
beard, protruded tranquilly from the blanket which concealed the rest of
him with the exception of his feet--feet which were ensconced in large,
somewhat clumsy, leather boots. As The Zulu wore no socks, the Xs of the
rawhide lacings on his bare flesh (blue, of course, with cold) presented
a rather fascinating design. The Zulu was, to all intents and purposes,
gazing at the ceiling....
Bill The Hollander, clad only in his shirt, his long lean muscled legs
planted far apart, shook one fist after another at the recumbent Young
Pole, thundering (curiously enough in English):
"Come on you _Gottverdummer_ son-of-a-bitch of a Polak bastard and fight!
Get up out o' there you Polak hoor and I'll kill you, you _Gottverdummer_
bastard you! I stood enough o' your _Gottverdummer_ nonsense you
As Bill The Hollander's thunder crescendoed steadily, cramming the utmost
corners of The Enormous Room with _Gottverdummers_ which echoingly
telescoped one another, producing a dim huge shaggy mass of vocal anger,
The Young Pole began to laugh less and less; began to plead and excuse
and palliate and demonstrate--and all the while the triangular tower in
its naked legs and its palpitating chemise brandished its vast fists
nearer and nearer, its ghastly yellow lips hurling cumulative volumes of
rhythmic profanity, its blue eyes snapping like fire-crackers, its
enormous hairy chest heaving and tumbling like a monstrous hunk of
sea-weed, its flat soiled feet curling and uncurling their ten sour
The Zulu puffed gently as he lay.
Bill The Hollander's jaw, sticking into the direction of The Young Pole's
helpless gestures, looked (with the pitiless scorching face behind it)
like some square house carried in the fore of a white cyclone. The Zulu
depressed his chin; his eyes (poking slowly from beneath the visor of the
cap which he always wore, in bed or out of it) regarded the vomiting
tower with an abstracted interest. He allowed one hand delicately to
escape from the blanket and quietly to remove from his lips the gently
"You won't eh? You bloody Polak coward!"
and with a speed in comparison to which lightning is snail-like the tower
reached twice for the peaches-and-cream cheeks of the prone victim; who
set up a tragic bellowing of his own, writhed upon his somewhat
dislocated _paillasse_, raised his elbows shieldingly, and started to get
to his feet by way of his trembling knees--to be promptly knocked flat.
Such a howling as The Young Pole set up I have rarely heard: he crawled
sideways; he got on one knee; he made a dart forward--and was caught
cleanly by an uppercut, lifted through the air a yard, and spread-eagled
against the stove which collapsed with an unearthly crash yielding an
inky shower of soot upon the combatants and almost crowning The Hollander
simultaneously with three four-feet sections of pipe. The Young Pole hit
the floor, shouting, on his head, at the apogee of a neatly executed
back-somersault, collapsed; rose yelling, and with flashing eyes picked
up a length of the ruined _tuyau_ which he lifted high in the air--at
which The Hollander seized in both fists a similar piece, brought it
instantly forward and sideways with incognisable velocity and delivered
such an immense wallop as smoothed The Young Pole horizontally to a
distance of six feet; where he suddenly landed, stove-pipe and all in a
crash of entire collapse, having passed clear over The Zulu's head. The
floated hingingly to a sitting position and was saluted by
"Lie down you _Gottverdummer_ Polaker, I'll get you next."
In spite of which he gathered himself to rise upward, catching as he did
so a swish of The Hollander's pipe-length which made his cigarette leap
neatly, holder and all, upward and outward. The Young Pole had by this
time recovered sufficiently to get upon his hands and knees behind the
Zulu; who was hurriedly but calmly propelling himself in the direction of
the cherished cigarette-holder, which had rolled under the remains of the
stove. Bill The Hollander made for his enemy, raising perpendicularly ten
feet in air the unrecognisably dented summit of the pipe which his
colossal fists easily encompassed, the muscles in his treelike arms
rolling beneath the chemise like balloons. The Young Pole with a shriek
of fear climbed the Zulu--receiving just as he had compassed this human
hurdle a crack on the seat of his black pants that stood him directly
upon his head. Pivoting slightly for an instant he fell loosely at full
length on his own _paillasse_, and lay sobbing and roaring, one elbow
protectingly raised, interspersing the inarticulations of woe with a
number of sincerely uttered "_Assez!'s_". Meanwhile The Zulu had
discovered the whereabouts of his treasure, had driftingly resumed his
original position; and was quietly inserting the also-captured cigarette
which appeared somewhat confused by its violent aerial journey. Over The
Young Pole stood toweringly Bill The Hollander, his shirt almost in
ribbons about his thick bulging neck, thundering as only Hollanders
"Have you got enough you _Gottverdummer_ Polak?"
and The Young Pole, alternating nursing the mutilated pulp where his face
had been and guarding it with futile and helpless and almost infantile
gestures of his quivering hands, was sobbing
"_Oui, Oui, Oui, Assez!_"
And Bill The Hollander hugely turned to The Zulu, stepping accurately to
the _paillasse_ of that individual, and demanded
"And you, you _Gottverdummer_ Polaker, do you want t' fight?"
at which The Zulu gently waved in recognition of the compliment and
delicately and hastily replied, between slow puffs
Whereat Bill The Hollander registered a disgusted kick in The Young
Pole's direction and swearingly resumed his _paillasse_.
All this, the reader understands, having taken place in the terribly cold
darkness of the half-dawn.
That very day, after a great deal of examination (on the part of the
Surveillant) of the participants in this Homeric struggle--said
examination failing to reveal the particular guilt or the particular
innocence of either--Judas, immaculately attired in a white coat, arrived
from downstairs with a step ladder and proceeded with everyone's
assistance to reconstruct the original pipe. And a pretty picture Judas
made. And a pretty bum job he made. But anyway the stove-pipe drew; and
everyone thanked God and fought for places about _le poele_. And Monsieur
Pet-airs hoped there would be no more fights for a while.
One might think that The Young Pole had learned a lesson. But no. He had
learned (it is true) to leave his immediate neighbour, America Lakes, to
himself; but that is all he had learned. In a few days he was up and
about, as full of _la blague_ as ever. The Zulu seemed at times almost
worried about him. They spoke together in Polish frequently and--on The
Zulu's part--earnestly. As subsequent events proved, whatever counsel The
Zulu imparted was wasted upon his youthful friend. But let us turn for a
moment to The Zulu himself.
He could not, of course, write any language whatever. Two words of French
he knew: they were _fromage_ and _chapeau_. The former he pronounced
"grumidge." In English his vocabulary was even more simple, consisting of
the single word "po-lees-man." Neither B. nor myself understood a
syllable of Polish (tho' we subsequently learned _Jin-dobri_,
_nima-Zatz_, _zampni-pisk_ and _shimay pisk_, and used to delight The
Zulu hugely by giving him
every morning, also by asking him if he had a "_papierosa_");
consequently in that direction the path of communication was to all
intents shut. And withal--I say this not to astonish my reader but merely
in the interests of truth--I have never in my life so perfectly
understood (even to the most exquisite nuances) whatever idea another
human being desired at any moment to communicate to me, as I have in the
case of The Zulu. And if I had one-third the command over the written
word that he had over the unwritten and the unspoken--not merely that;
over the unspeakable and the unwritable--God knows this history would
rank with the deepest art of all time.
It may be supposed that he was master of an intricate and delicate system
whereby ideas were conveyed through signs of various sorts. On the
contrary. He employed signs more or less, but they were in every case
extraordinarily simple. The secret of his means of complete and
unutterable communication lay in that very essence which I have only
defined as an IS; ended and began with an innate and unlearnable control
over all which one can only describe as the homogeneously tactile. The
Zulu, for example communicated the following facts in a very few minutes,
with unspeakable ease, one day shortly after his arrival:
He had been formerly a Polish farmer, with a wife and four children. He
had left Poland to come to France, where one earned more money. His
friend (The Young Pole) accompanied him. They were enjoying life placidly
in, it may have been, Brest--I forget--when one night the _gendarmes_
suddenly broke into their room, raided it, turned it bottomside up,
handcuffed the two arch-criminals wrist to wrist, and said "Come with
us." Neither The Zulu nor The Young Pole had the ghost of an idea what
all this meant or where they were going. They had no choice but to obey,
and obey they did. Everyone boarded a train. Everyone got out. Bill The
Hollander and The Babysnatcher appeared under escort, handcuffed to each
other. They were immediately re-handcuffed to the Polish delegation. The
four culprits were hustled, by rapid stages, through several small
prisons to La Ferte Mace. During this journey (which consumed several
nights and days) the handcuffs were not once removed. The prisoners slept
sitting up or falling over one another. They urinated and defecated with
the handcuffs on, all of them hitched together. At various times they
complained to their captors that the agony caused by the swelling of
their wrists was unbearable--this agony, being the result of
over-tightness of the handcuffs, might easily have been relieved by one
of the _plantons_ without loss of time or prestige. Their complaints were
greeted by commands to keep their mouths shut or they'd get it worse than
they had it. Finally they hove in sight of La Ferte and the handcuffs
were removed in order to enable two of the prisoners to escort The Zulu's
box upon their shoulders, which they were only too happy to do under the
circumstances. This box, containing not only The Zulu's personal effects
but also a great array of cartridges, knives and heaven knows what
extraordinary souvenirs which he had gathered from God knows where, was a
strong point in the disfavour of The Zulu from the beginning; and was
consequently brought along as evidence. Upon arriving, all had been
searched, the box included, and sent to The Enormous Room. The Zulu (at
the conclusion of this dumb and eloquent recital) slipped his sleeve
gently above his wrist and exhibited a bluish ring, at whose persistence
upon the flesh he evinced great surprise and pleasure, winking happily to
us. Several days later I got the same story from The Young Pole in
French; but after some little difficulty due to linguistic
misunderstandings, and only after a half-hour's intensive conversation.
So far as directness, accuracy and speed are concerned, between the
method of language and the method of The Zulu, there was not the
Not long after The Zulu arrived I witnessed a mystery: it was toward the
second _soupe_, and B. and I were proceeding (our spoons in our hands) in
the direction of the door, when beside us suddenly appeared The Zulu--who
took us by the shoulders gently and (after carefully looking about him)
produced from, as nearly as one could see, his right ear a twenty franc
note; asking us in a few well-chosen silences to purchase with it
_confiture_, _fromage_, and _chocolat_ at the canteen. He silently
apologized for encumbering us with these errands, averring that he had
been found when he arrived to have no money upon him and consequently
wished to keep intact this little tradition. We were only too delighted
to assist so remarkable a prestidigitator--we scarcely knew him at that
time--and _apres la soupe_ we bought as requested, conveying the
treasures to our bunks and keeping guard over them. About fifteen minutes
after the _planton_ had locked everyone in, The Zulu driftingly arrived
before us; whereupon we attempted to give him his purchases--but he
winked and told us wordlessly that we should (if we would be so kind)
keep them for him, immediately following this suggestion by a request
that we open the marmalade or jam or whatever it might be
called--preserve is perhaps the best word. We complied with alacrity. Now
(he said soundlessly), you may if you like offer me a little. We did. Now
have some yourselves, The Zulu commanded. So we attacked the _confiture_
with a will, spreading it on pieces or, rather, chunks of the brownish
bread whose faintly rotten odour is one element of the life at La Ferte
which I, for one, find it easier to remember than to forget. And next, in
similar fashion, we opened the cheese and offered some to our visitor;
and finally the chocolate. Whereupon The Zulu rose up, thanked us
tremendously for our gifts, and--winking solemnly--floated off.
Next day he told us that he wanted us to eat all of the delicacies we had
purchased, whether or not he happened to be in the vicinity. He also
informed us that when they were gone we should buy more until the twenty
francs gave out. And, so generous were our appetites, it was not more
than two or three weeks later that The Zulu having discovered that our
supplies were exhausted produced from his back hair a neatly folded
twenty franc note; wherewith we invaded the canteen with renewed
violence. About this time The Spy got busy and The Zulu, with The Young
Pole for interpreter, was summoned to Monsieur le Directeur, who stripped
The Zulu and searched every wrinkle and crevice of his tranquil anatomy
for money (so The Zulu vividly informed us)--finding not a sou. The Zulu,
who vastly enjoyed the discomfiture of Monsieur, cautiously extracted
(shortly after this) a twenty franc note from the back of his neck, and
presented it to us with extreme care. I may say that most of his money
went for cheese, of which The Zulu was almost abnormally fond. Nothing
more suddenly delightful has happened to me than happened, one day, when
I was leaning from the next to the last window--the last being the
property of users of the cabinet--of The Enormous Room, contemplating the
muddy expanse below, and wondering how the Hollanders had ever allowed
the last two windows to be opened. Margherite passed from the door of the
building proper to the little washing shed. As the sentinel's back was
turned I saluted her, and she looked up and smiled pleasantly. And
then--a hand leapt quietly forward from the wall, just to my right; the
fingers clenched gently upon one-half a newly broken cheese; the hand
moved silently in my direction, cheese and all, pausing when perhaps six
inches from my nose. I took the cheese from the hand, which departed as
if by magic; and a little later had the pleasure of being joined at my
window by The Zulu, who was brushing cheese crumbs from his long slender
Mandarin mustaches, and who expressed profound astonishment and equally
profound satisfaction upon noting that I too had been enjoying the
pleasures of cheese. Not once, but several times, this Excalibur
appearance startled B. and me: in fact the extreme modesty and
incomparable shyness of The Zulu found only in this procedure a
satisfactory method of bestowing presents upon his two friends ... I
would I could see that long hand once more, the sensitive fingers poised
upon a half-camembert; the bodiless arm swinging gently and surely with a
derrick-like grace and certainty in my direction....
Not very long after The Zulu's arrival occurred an incident which I give
with pleasure because it shows the dauntless and indomitable, not to say
intrepid, stuff of which _plantons_ are made. The single _sceau_ which
supplied the (at this time) sixty-odd inhabitants of The Enormous Room
with drinking water had done its duty, shortly after our arrival from the
first _soupe_ with such thoroughness as to leave a number of unfortunate
(among whom I was one) waterless. The interval between _soupe_ and
promenade loomed darkly and thirstily before us unfortunates. As the
minutes passed, it loomed with greater and greater distinctness. At the
end of twenty minutes our thirst--stimulated by an especially salty dose
of lukewarm water for lunch--attained truly desperate proportions.
Several of the bolder thirsters leaned from the various windows of the
room and cried
"_De l'eau, planton; de l'eau, s'il vous plait_"
upon which the guardian of the law looked up suspiciously; pausing a
moment as if to identify the scoundrels whose temerity had so far got the
better of their understanding as to lead them to address him, a
_planton_, in familiar terms--and then grimly resumed his walk, gun on
shoulder, revolver on hip, the picture of simple and unaffected majesty.
Whereat, seeing that entreaties were of no avail, we put our seditious
and dangerous heads together and formulated a very great scheme; to wit,
the lowering of an empty tin-pail about eight inches high, which tin-pail
had formerly contained confiture, which confiture had long since passed
into the guts of Monsieur Auguste, The Zulu, B., myself, and--as The
Zulu's friend--The Young Pole. Now this fiendish imitation of The Old
Oaken Bucket That Hung In The Well was to be lowered to the good-natured
Marguerite (who went to and fro from the door of the building to the
washing shed); who was to fill it for us at the pump situated directly
under us in a cavernous chilly cave on the ground-floor, then rehitch it
to the rope, and guide its upward beginning. The rest was in the hands of
Bold might the _planton_ be; we were no _faineants_. We made a little
speech to everyone in general desiring them to lend us their belts. The
Zulu, the immensity of whose pleasure in this venture cannot be even
indicated, stripped off his belt with unearthly agility--Monsieur Auguste
gave his, which we tongue-holed to The Zulu's--somebody else contributed
a necktie--another a shoe-string--The Young Pole his scarf, of which he
was impossibly proud--etc. The extraordinary rope so constructed was now
tried out in The Enormous Room, and found to be about thirty-eight feet
long; or in other words of ample length, considering that the window
itself was only three stories above terra firma. Margherite was put on
her guard by signs, executed when the _planton's_ back was turned (which
it was exactly half the time, as his patrol stretched at right angles to
the wing of the building whose third story we occupied). Having attached
the minute bucket to one end (the stronger looking end, the end which had
more belts and less neckties and handkerchiefs) of our improvised rope,
B., Harree, myself and The Zulu bided our time at the window--then
seizing a favourable opportunity, in enormous haste began paying out the
infernal contrivance. Down went the sinful tin-pail, safely past the
window-ledge just below us, straight and true to the waiting hands of the
faithful Margherite--who had just received it and was on the point of
undoing the bucket from the first belt when, lo! who should come in sight
around the corner but the pimply-faced brilliantly-uniformed
glitteringly-putteed _sergeant de plantons lui-meme_. Such amazement as
dominated his puny features I have rarely seen equalled. He stopped dead
in his tracks; for one second stupidly contemplated the window,
ourselves, the wall, seven neckties, five belts, three handkerchiefs, a
scarf, two shoe-strings, the jam pail, and Margherite--then, wheeling,
noticed the _planton_ (who peacefully and with dignity was pursuing a
course which carried him further and further from the zone of operations)
and finally, spinning around again, cried shrilly
"_Qu'est-ce que vous avez foutu avec cette machine-la?_"
At which cry the _planton_ staggered, rotated, brought his gun clumsily
off his shoulder, and stared, trembling all over with emotion, at his
"_La-bas!_" screamed the pimply _sergeant de plantons_, pointing fiercely
in our direction.
Margherite, at his first command, had let go the jam-pail and sought
shelter in the building. Simultaneously with her flight we all began
pulling on the rope for dear life, making the bucket bound against the
Upon hearing the dreadful exclamation "_La-bas!_" the _planton_ almost
fell down. The sight which greeted his eyes caused him to excrete a
single mouthful of vivid profanity, made him grip his gun like a hero,
set every nerve in his noble and faithful body tingling. Apparently
however he had forgotten completely his gun, which lay faithfully and
expectingly in his two noble hands.
"Attention!" screamed the sergeant.
The _planton_ did something to his gun very aimlessly and rapidly.
"FIRE!" shrieked the sergeant, scarlet with rage and mortification.
The _planton_, cool as steel, raised his gun.
"_NOM DE DIEU TIREZ!_"
The bucket, in big merry sounding jumps, was approaching the window below
The _planton_ took aim, falling fearlessly on one knee, and closing both
eyes. I confess that my blood stood on tip-toe; but what was death to the
loss of that jam-bucket, let alone everyone's apparel which everyone had
so generously loaned? We kept on hauling silently. Out of the corner of
my eye I beheld the _planton_--now on both knees, musket held to his
shoulder by his left arm and pointing unflinchingly at us one and
all--hunting with his right arm and hand in his belt for cartridges! A
few seconds after this fleeting glimpse of heroic devotion had penetrated
my considerably heightened sensitivity--UP suddenly came the bucket and
over backwards we all went together on the floor of The Enormous Room.
And as we fell I heard a cry like the cry of a boiler announcing noon--
I recollect that I lay on the floor for some minutes, half on top of The
Zulu and three-quarters smothered by Monsieur Auguste, shaking with
Then we all took to our hands and knees, and made for our bunks.
I believe no one (curiously enough) got punished for this atrocious
misdemeanour--except the _planton_; who was punished for not shooting us,
although God knows he had done his very best.
And now I must chronicle the famous duel which took place between The
Zulu's compatriot, The Young Pole, and that herebefore introduced pimp,
The Fighting Sheeney; a duel which came as a climax to a vast deal of
teasing on the part of The Young Pole--who, as previously remarked, had
not learned his lesson from Bill The Hollander with the thoroughness
which one might have expected of him.
In addition to a bit of French and considerable Spanish, Rockyfeller's
valet spoke Russian very (I did not have to be told) badly. The Young
Pole, perhaps sore at being rolled on the floor of The Enormous Room by
the worthy Sheeney, set about nagging him just as he had done in the case
of neighbour Bill. His favourite epithet for the conqueror was "_moshki_"
or "_moski_" I never was sure which. Whatever it meant (The Young Pole
and Monsieur Auguste informed me that it meant "Jew" in a highly
derogatory sense) its effect upon the noble Sheeney was definitely
unpleasant. But when coupled with the word "_moskosi_," accent on the
second syllable or long o, its effect was more than unpleasant--it was
really disagreeable. At intervals throughout the day, on promenade, of an
evening, the ugly phrase
resounded through The Enormous Room. The Fighting Sheeney, then rapidly
convalescing from syphilis, bided his time. The Young Pole moreover had a
way of jesting upon the subject of The Sheeney's infirmity. He would,
particularly during the afternoon promenade, shout various none too
subtle allusions to Moshki's physical condition for the benefit of _les
femmes_. And in response would come peals of laughter from the girls'
windows, shrill peals and deep guttural peals intersecting and breaking
joints like overlapping shingles on the roof of Craziness. So hearty did
these responses become one afternoon that, in answer to loud pleas from
the injured Moshki, the pimply _sergeant de plantons_ himself came to the
gate in the barbed wire fence and delivered a lecture upon the
seriousness of venereal ailments (heart-felt, I should judge by the looks
of him), as follows:
"_Il ne faut pas rigoler de ca. Savez-vous? C'est une maladie, ca,_"
which little sermon contrasted agreeably with his usual remarks
concerning, and in the presence of, _les femmes_, whereof the essence lay
in a single phrase of prepositional significance--
"_bon pour coucher avec_"
he would say shrilly, his puny eyes assuming an expression of amorous
wisdom which was most becoming....
One day we were all upon afternoon promenade, (it being _beau temps_ for
that part of the world), under the auspices of by all odds one of the
littlest and mildest and most delicate specimens of mankind that ever
donned the high and dangerous duties of a _planton_. As B. says: "He
always looked like a June bride." This mannikin could not have been five
feet high, was perfectly proportioned (unless we except the musket upon
his shoulder and the bayonet at his belt), and minced to and fro with a
feminine grace which suggested--at least to _les deux citoyens_ of These
United States--the extremely authentic epithet "fairy." He had such a
pretty face! and so cute a moustache! and such darling legs! and such a
wonderful smile! For plantonic purposes the smile--which brought two
little dimples into his pink cheeks--was for the most part suppressed.
However it was impossible for this little thing to look stern: the best
he could do was to look poignantly sad. Which he did with great success,
standing like a tragic last piece of uneaten candy in his big box at the
end of the _cour_, and eyeing the sinful _hommes_ with sad pretty eyes.
Won't anyone eat me?--he seemed to ask.--I'm really delicious, you know,
perfectly delicious, really I am.
To resume: everyone being in the _cour_, it was well filled, not only
from the point of view of space but of sound. A barnyard crammed with
pigs, cows, horses, ducks, geese, hens, cats and dogs could not possibly
have produced one-fifth of the racket that emanated, spontaneously and
inevitably, from the _cour_. Above which racket I heard _tout a coup_ a
roar of pain and surprise; and looking up with some interest and also in
some alarm, beheld The Young Pole backing and filling and slipping in the
deep ooze under the strenuous jolts, jabs and even haymakers of The
Fighting Sheeney, who, with his coat off and his cap off and his shirt
open at the neck, was swatting luxuriously and for all he was worth that
round helpless face and that peaches-and-cream complexion. From where I
stood, at a distance of six or eight yards, the impact of the Sheeney's
fist on The Young Pole's jaw and cheeks was disconcertingly audible. The
latter made not the slightest attempt to defend himself, let alone
retaliate; he merely skidded about, roaring and clutching desperately out
of harm's way his long white scarf, of which (as I have mentioned) he was
extremely proud. But for the sheer brutality of the scene it would have
been highly ludicrous. The Sheeney was swinging like a windmill and
hammering like a blacksmith. His ugly head lowered, the chin protruding,
lips drawn back in a snarl, teeth sticking forth like a gorilla's, he
banged and smote that moon-shaped physiognomy as if his life depended
upon utterly annihilating it. And annihilate it he doubtless would have,
but for the prompt (not to say punctual) heroism of The June Bride--who,
lowering his huge gun, made a rush for the fight; stopped at a safe
distance; and began squeaking at the very top and even summit of his
faint girlish voice:
"_Aux armes! Aux armes!_"
which plaintive and intrepid utterance by virtue of its very fragility
penetrated the building and released The Black Holster, who bounded
through the gate, roaring a salutation as he bounded, and in a jiffy had
cuffed the participants apart. "All right, whose fault is this?" he
roared. And a number of highly reputable spectators, such as Judas and
The Fighting Sheeney himself, said it was The Young Pole's fault.
"_Allez! Au cabinot! De suits!_" And off trickled the sobbing Young Pole,
winding his great scarf comfortingly about him, to the dungeon.
Some few minutes later we encountered The Zulu speaking with Monsieur
Auguste. Monsieur Auguste was very sorry. He admitted that The Young Pole
had brought his punishment upon himself. But he was only a boy. The
Zulu's reaction to the affair was absolutely profound: he indicated _les
femmes_ with one eye, his trousers with another, and converted his
utterly plastic personality into an amorous machine for several seconds,
thereby vividly indicating the root of the difficulty. That the stupidity
of his friend, The Young Pole, hurt The Zulu deeply I discovered by
looking at him as he lay in bed the next morning, limply and sorrowfully
prone; beside him the empty _paillasse_, which meant _cabinot_ ... his
perfectly extraordinary face (a face perfectly at once fluent and
angular, expressionless and sensitive) told me many things whereof even
The Zulu might not speak, things which in order entirely to suffer he
kept carefully and thoroughly ensconced behind his rigid and mobile eyes.
From the day that The Young Pole emerged from _cabinot_ he was our
friend. The _blague_ had been at last knocked out of him, thanks to Un
Mangeur de Blanc, as the little Machine-Fixer expressively called The
Fighting Sheeney. Which _mangeur_, by the way (having been exonerated
from all blame by the more enlightened spectators of the unequal battle)
strode immediately and ferociously over to B. and me, a hideous grin
crackling upon the coarse surface of his mug, and demanded--hiking at the
front of his trousers--
"_Bon, eh? Bien fait, eh?_"
and a few days later asked us for money, even hinting that he would be
pleased to become our special protector. I think, as a matter of fact, we
"lent" him one-eighth of what he wanted (perhaps we lent him five cents)
in order to avoid trouble and get rid of him. At any rate, he didn't
bother us particularly afterwards; and if a nickel could accomplish that
a nickel should be proud of itself.
And always, through the falling greyness of the desolate Autumn, The Zulu
was beside us, or wrapped around a tree in the _cour_, or melting in a
post after tapping Mexique in a game of hide-and-seek, or suffering from
toothache--God, I wish I could see him expressing for us the wickedness
of toothache--or losing his shoes and finding them under Garibaldi's bed
(with a huge perpendicular wink which told tomes about Garibaldi's fatal
propensities for ownership), or marvelling silently at the power of _les
femmes a propos_ his young friend--who, occasionally resuming his former
bravado, would stand in the black evil rain with his white farm scarf
twined about him, singing as of old:
"_Je suis content
pour mettre dedans
suis pas presse
... And the Zulu came out of _la commission_ with identically the
expressionless expression which he had carried into it; and God knows
what The Three Wise Men found out about him, but (whatever it was) they
never found and never will find that Something whose discovery was worth
to me more than all the round and powerless money of the world--limbs'
tin grace, wooden wink, shoulderless, unhurried body, velocity of a
grasshopper, soul up under his arm-pits, mysteriously falling over the
ownness of two feet, floating fish of his slimness half a bird....
Gentlemen, I am inexorably grateful for the gift of these ignorant and
Let us ascend the third Delectable Mountain, which is called Surplice.
I will admit, in the beginning, that I never knew Surplice. This for the
simple reason that I am unwilling to know except as a last resource. And
it is by contrast with Harree The Hollander, whom I knew, and Judas, whom
I knew, that I shall be able to give you (perhaps) a little of Surplice,
whom I did not know. For that matter, I think Monsieur Auguste was the
only person who might possibly have known him; and I doubt whether
Monsieur Auguste was capable of descending to such depths in the case of
so fine a person as Surplice.
Take a sheer animal of a man. Take the incredible Hollander with
cobalt-blue breeches, shock of orange hair pasted over forehead, pink
long face, twenty-six years old, had been in all the countries of all the
world: "Australia girl fine girl--Japanese girl cleanest girl of the
world--Spanish girl all right--English girl no good, no face--everywhere
these things: Norway sailors German girls Sweedisher matches Holland
candles" ... had been to Philadelphia; worked on a yacht for a
millionaire; knew and had worked in the Krupp factories; was on two boats
torpedoed and one which struck a mine when in sight of shore through the
"looking-glass": "Holland almost no soldier--India" (the Dutch Indies)
"nice place, always warm there, I was in cavalry; if you kill a man or
steal one hundred franc or anything, in prison twenty-four hours; every
week black girl sleep with you because government want white children,
black girl fine girl, always doing something, your fingernails or clean
your ears or make wind because it's hot.... No one can beat German
people; if Kaiser tell man to kill his father and mother he do it
quick!"--the tall, strong, coarse, vital youth who remarked:
"I sleep with black girl who smoke a pipe in the night."
Take this animal. You hear him, you are afraid of him, you smell and you
see him and you know him--but you do not touch him.
Or a man who makes us thank God for animals, Judas, as we called him: who
keeps his moustaches in press during the night (by means of a kind of
transparent frame which is held in place by a band over his head); who
grows the nails of his two little fingers with infinite care; has two
girls with both of whom he flirts carefully and wisely, without ever once
getting into trouble; talks in French; converses in Belgian; can speak
eight languages and is therefore always useful to Monsieur le
Surveillant--Judas with his shining horrible forehead, pecked with little
indentures; with his Reynard full-face--Judas with his pale almost
putrescent fatty body in the _douche_--Judas with whom I talked one night
about Russia, he wearing my _pelisse_--the frightful and impeccable
Judas: take this man. You see him, you smell the hot stale odour of
Judas' body; you are not afraid of him, in fact, you hate him; you hear
him and you know him. But you do not touch him.
And now take Surplice, whom I see and hear and smell and touch and even
taste, and whom I do not know.
Take him in dawn's soft squareness, gently stooping to pick chewed
cigarette ends from the spitty floor ... hear him, all night: retchings
which light into the dark ... see him all day and all days, collecting
his soaked ends and stuffing them gently into his round pipe (when he can
find none he smokes tranquilly little splinters of wood) ... watch him
scratching his back (exactly like a bear) on the wall ... or in the
_cour_, speaking to no one, sunning his soul....
He is, we think, Polish. Monsieur Auguste is very kind to him, Monsieur
Auguste can understand a few words of his language and thinks they mean
to be Polish. That they are trying hard to be and never can be Polish.
Everyone else roars at him, Judas refers to him before his face as a
dirty pig, Monsieur Peters cries angrily: "_Il ne faut pas cracher par
terre_" eliciting a humble not to stay abject apology; the Belgians spit
on him; the Hollanders chaff him and bulldoze him now and then, crying
"Syph'lis"--at which he corrects them with offended majesty
"_pas syph'lis, Surplice_"
causing shouts of laughter from everyone--of nobody can he say My Friend,
of no one has he ever or will he ever say My Enemy.
When there is labour to do he works like a dog ... the day we had
_nettoyage de chambre_, for instance, and Surplice and The Hat did most
of the work; and B. and I were caught by the _planton_ trying to stroll
out into the _cour_ ... every morning he takes the pail of solid
excrement down, without anyone's suggesting that he take it; takes it as
if it were his, empties it in the sewer just beyond the _cour des femmes_
or pours a little (just a little) very delicately on the garden where
Monsieur le Directeur is growing a flower for his daughter--he has, in
fact, an unobstreperous affinity for excrement; he lives in it; he is
shaggy and spotted and blotched with it; he sleeps in it; he puts it in
his pipe and says it is delicious....
And he is intensely religious, religious with a terrible and exceedingly
beautiful and absurd intensity ... every Friday he will be found sitting
on a little kind of stool by his _paillasse_ reading his prayer-book
upside down; turning with enormous delicacy the thin difficult leaves,
smiling to himself as he sees and does not read. Surplice is actually
religious, and so are Garibaldi and I think The Woodchuck (a little dark
sad man who spits blood with regularity); by which I mean they go to _la
messe_ for _la messe_, whereas everyone else goes _pour voir les femmes_.
And I don't know for certain why The Woodchuck goes, but I think it's
because he feels entirely sure he will die. And Garibaldi is afraid,
immensely afraid. And Surplice goes in order to be surprised, surprised
by the amazing gentleness and delicacy of God--Who put him, Surplice,
upon his knees in La Ferte Mace, knowing that Surplice would appreciate
His so doing.
He is utterly ignorant. He thinks America is out a particular window on
your left as you enter The Enormous Room. He cannot understand the
submarine. He does now know that there is a war. On being informed upon
these subjects he is unutterably surprised, he is inexpressibly
astonished. He derives huge pleasure from this astonishment. His filthy
rather proudly noble face radiates the pleasure he receives upon being
informed that people are killing people for nobody knows what reason,
that boats go under water and fire six-foot long bullets at ships, that
America is not really outside this window close to which we are talking,
that America is, in fact, over the sea. The sea: is that water?--"_c'est
de l'eau, monsieur?_" Ah: a great quantity of water; enormous amounts of
water, water and then water; water and water and water and water and
water. "Ah! You cannot see the other side of this water, monsieur?
Wonderful, monsieur!"--He meditates it, smiling quietly; its wonder, how
wonderful it is, no other side, and yet--the sea. In which fish swim.
He is utterly curious. He is utterly hungry. We have bought cheese with
The Zulu's money. Surplice comes up, bows timidly and ingratiatingly with
the demeanour of a million-times whipped but somewhat proud dog. He
smiles. He says nothing, being terribly embarrassed. To help his
embarrassment, we pretend we do not see him. That makes things better:
"_Oui, c'est du frommage._"
his astonishment is supreme. _C'est du frommage._ He ponders this. After
"_Monsieur, c'est bon, monsieur?_"
asking the question as if his very life depended on the answer: "Yes, it
is good," we tell him reassuringly.
He is once more superlatively happy. It is good, _le fromage_. Could
anything be more superbly amazing? After perhaps a minute
"_monsieur--monsieur--c'est chere le fromage?_"
"Very," we tell him truthfully. He smiles, blissfully astonished. Then,
with extreme delicacy and the utmost timidity conceivable
"_monsieur, combien ca coute, monsieur?_"
We tell him. He totters with astonishment and happiness. Only now, as if
we had just conceived the idea, we say carelessly
He straightens, thrilled from the top of his rather beautiful filthy head
to the soleless slippers with which he promenades in rain and frost:
We cut him a piece. He takes it quiveringly, holds it a second as a king
might hold and contemplate the best and biggest jewel of his realm, turns
with profuse thanks to us--and disappears....
He is perhaps most curious of this pleasantly sounding thing which
everyone around him, everyone who curses and spits upon and bullies him,
desires with a terrible desire--_Liberte_. Whenever anyone departs
Surplice is in an ecstasy of quiet excitement. The lucky man may be
Fritz; for whom Bathhouse John is taking up a collection as if he, Fritz,
were a Hollander and not a Dane--for whom Bathhouse John is striding
hither and thither, shaking a hat into which we drop coins for Fritz;
Bathhouse John, chipmunk-cheeked, who talks Belgian, French, English and
Dutch in his dreams, who has been two years in La Ferte (and they say he
declined to leave, once, when given the chance), who cries "_baigneur de
femmes moi_" and every night hoists himself into his wooden bunk crying
"goo-d ni-te"; whose favourite joke is "_une section pour les femmes_,"
which he shouts occasionally in the _cour_ as he lifts his paper-soled
slippers and stamps in the freezing mud, chuckling and blowing his nose
on the Union Jack ... and now Fritz, beaming with joy, shakes hands and
thanks us all and says to me "Good-bye, Johnny," and waves and is gone
forever--and behind me I hear a timid voice
and I say Yes, feeling that Yes in my belly and in my head at the same
instant; and Surplice stands beside me, quietly marvelling, extremely
happy, uncaring that _le parti_ did not think to say good-bye to him. Or
it may be Harree and Pompom who are running to and fro shaking hands with
everybody in the wildest state of excitement, and I hear a voice behind
"_Liberte, monsieur? Liberte?_"
and I say, No. Precigne, feeling weirdly depressed, and Surplice is
standing to my left, contemplating the departure of the incorrigibles
with interested disappointment--Surplice of whom no man takes any notice
when that man leaves, be it for Hell or Paradise....
And once a week the _maitre de chambre_ throws soap on the mattresses,
and I hear a voice
"_monsieur, voulez pas?_"
and Surplice is asking that we give him our soap to wash with.
Sometimes, when he has made _quelques sous_ by washing for others, he
stalks quietly to the Butcher's chair (everyone else who wants a shave
having been served) and receives with shut eyes and a patient expression
the blade of The Butcher's dullest razor--for The Butcher is not a man to
waste a good razor on Surplice; he, The Butcher, as we call him, the
successor of The Frog (who one day somehow managed to disappear like his
predecessor The Barber), being a thug and a burglar fond of telling us
pleasantly about German towns and prisons, prisons where men are not
allowed to smoke, clean prisons where there is a daily medical
inspection, where anyone who thinks he has a grievance of any sort has
the right of immediate and direct appeal; he, The Butcher, being perhaps
happiest when he can spend an evening showing us little parlour tricks
fit for children of four and three years old; quite at his best when he
"Sickness doesn't exist in France,"
meaning that one is either well or dead; or
"If they (the French) get an inventor they put him in prison."
--So The Butcher is stooping heavily upon Surplice and slicing and
gashing busily and carelessly, his thick lips stuck a little pursewise,
his buried pig's eyes glistening--and in a moment he cries "_Fini!_" and
poor Surplice rises unsteadily, horribly slashed, bleeding from at least
three two-inch cuts and a dozen large scratches; totters over to his
couch holding on to his face as if he were afraid it would fall off any
moment; and lies down gently at full length, sighing with pleasurable
surprise, cogitating the inestimable delights of cleanness....
It struck me at the time as intensely interesting that, in the case of a
certain type of human being, the more cruel are the miseries inflicted
upon him the more cruel does he become toward anyone who is so
unfortunate as to be weaker or more miserable than himself. Or perhaps I
should say that nearly every human being, given sufficiently miserable
circumstances, will from time to time react to those very circumstances
(whereby his own personality is mutilated) through a deliberate
mutilation on his own part of a weaker or already more mutilated
personality. I daresay that this is perfectly obvious. I do not pretend
to have made a discovery. On the contrary, I merely state what interested
me peculiarly in the course of my sojourn at La Ferte: I mention that I
was extremely moved to find that, however busy sixty men may be kept
suffering in common, there is always one man or two or three men who can
always find time to make certain that their comrades enjoy a little extra
suffering. In the case of Surplice, to be the butt of everyone's ridicule
could not be called precisely suffering; inasmuch as Surplice, being
unspeakably lonely, enjoyed any and all insults for the simple reason
that they constituted or at least implied a recognition of his existence.
To be made a fool of was, to this otherwise completely neglected
individual, a mark of distinction; something to take pleasure in; to be
proud of. The inhabitants of The Enormous Room had given to Surplice a
small but essential part in the drama of La Misere: he would play that
part to the utmost of his ability; the cap-and-bells should not grace a
head unworthy of their high significance. He would be a great fool, since
that was his function; a supreme entertainer, since his duty was to
amuse. After all, men in La Misere as well as anywhere else rightly
demand a certain amount of amusement; amusement is, indeed, peculiarly
essential to suffering; in proportion as we are able to be amused we are
able to suffer; I, Surplice, am a very necessary creature after all.
I recall one day when Surplice beautifully demonstrated his ability to
play the fool. Someone had crept up behind him as he was stalking to and
fro, head in air proudly, hands in pockets, pipe in teeth, and had (after
several heart-breaking failures) succeeded in attaching to the back of
his jacket by means of a pin a huge placard carefully prepared
beforehand, bearing the numerical inscription
in vast writing. The attacher, having accomplished his difficult feat,
crept away. So soon as he reached his _paillasse_ a volley of shouts went
up from all directions, shouts in which all nationalities joined, shouts
or rather jeers which made the pillars tremble and the windows rattle--
"_SIX CENT SIX! SYPH'LIS!_"
Surplice started from his reverie, removed his pipe from his lips, drew
himself up proudly, and--facing one after another the sides of The
Enormous Room--blustered in his bad and rapid French accent:
"_Pas syph'lis! Pas syph'lis!_"
at which, rocking with mirth, everyone responded at the top of his voice:
"_SIX CENT SIX!_"
Whereat, enraged, Surplice made a dash at Pete The Shadow and was greeted
"Get away, you bloody Polak, or I'll give you something you'll be sorry
for"--this from the lips of America Lakes. Cowed, but as majestic as
ever, Surplice attempted to resume his promenade and his composure
together. The din bulged:
"_Six cent six! Syph'lis! Six cent Six!_"
--increasing in volume with every instant. Surplice, beside himself with
rage, rushed another of his fellow-captives (a little old man, who fled
under the table) and elicited threats of:
"Come on now, you Polak hoor, and quit that business or I'll kill you,"
upon which he dug his hands into the pockets of his almost transparent
pantaloons and marched away in a fury, literally frothing at the mouth.--
"_Six Cent Six!_"
everyone cried. Surplice stamped with wrath and mortification. "_C'est
domage_" Monsieur Auguste said gently beside me. "_C'est un bon-homme, le
pauvre, il ne faut pas l'enmerd-er._"
"Look behind you!"
somebody yelled. Surplice wheeled, exactly like a kitten trying to catch
its own tail, and provoked thunders of laughter. Nor could anything at
once more pitiful and ridiculous, more ludicrous and horrible, be
"On your coat! Look on your jacket!"
Surplice bent backward, staring over his left, then his right, shoulder,
pulled at his jacket first one way then the other--thereby making his
improvised tail to wag, which sent The Enormous Room into spasms of
merriment--finally caught sight of the incriminating appendage, pulled
his coat to the left, seized the paper, tore it off, threw it fiercely
down, and stamped madly on the crumpled 606; spluttering and blustering
and waving his arms; slavering like a mad dog. Then he faced the most
prominently vociferous corner and muttered thickly and crazily:
Then he strode rapidly to his _paillasse_ and lay down; in which position
I caught him, a few minutes later, smiling and even chuckling ... very
happy ... as only an actor is happy whose efforts have been greeted with
In addition to being called "Syph'lis" he was popularly known as "Chaude
Pisse, the Pole." If there is anything particularly terrifying about
prisons, or at least imitations of prisons such as La Ferte, it is
possibly the utter obviousness with which (quite unknown to themselves)
the prisoners demonstrate willy-nilly certain fundamental psychological
laws. The case of Surplice is a very exquisite example: everyone, of
course, is afraid of _les maladies venerinnes_--accordingly all pick an
individual (of whose inner life they know and desire to know nothing,
whose external appearance satisfies the requirements of the mind _a
propos_ what is foul and disgusting) and, having tacitly agreed upon this
individual as a Symbol of all that is evil, proceed to heap insults upon
him and enjoy his very natural discomfiture ... but I shall remember
Surplice on his both knees sweeping sacredly together the spilled sawdust
from a spittoon-box knocked over by the heel of the omnipotent _planton_;
and smiling as he smiled at _la messe_ when Monsieur le Cure told him
that there was always Hell....
He told us one day a great and huge story of an important incident in his
life, as follows:
"_Monsieur_, disabled me--yes, _monsieur_--disabled--I work, many people,
house, very high, third floor, everybody, planks up there--planks no
good--all shake..." (here he began to stagger and rotate before us)
"begins to fall ... falls, falls, all, all twenty-seven men--bricks--
planks--wheelbarrows--all--ten metres ... _zuhzuhzuhzuhzuhPOOM_!...
everybody hurt, everybody killed, not me, injured ... _oui
monsieur_"--and he smiled, rubbing his head foolishly. Twenty-seven men,
bricks, planks and wheelbarrows. Ten metres. Bricks and planks. Men and
Also he told us, one night, in his gentle, crazy, shrugging voice, that
once upon a time he played the fiddle with a big woman in Alsace-Lorraine
for fifty francs a night; "_c'est la misere_"--adding quietly, "I can
play well, I can play anything, I can play _n'importe quoi_."
Which I suppose and guess I scarcely believed--until one afternoon a man
brought up a harmonica which he had purchased _en ville_; and the man
tried it; and everyone tried it; and it was perhaps the cheapest
instrument and the poorest that money can buy, even in the fair country
of France; and everyone was disgusted--but, about six o'clock in the
evening, a voice came from behind the last experimenter; a timid hasty
"_monsieur, monsieur, permettez?_"
the last experimenter turned and to his amazement saw Chaude Pisse the
Pole, whom everyone had (of course) forgotten.
The man tossed the harmonica on the table with a scornful look (a
menacingly scornful look) at the object of universal execration; and
turned his back. Surplice, trembling from the summit of his filthy and
beautiful head to the naked soles of his filthy and beautiful feet,
covered the harmonica delicately and surely with one shaking paw; seated
himself with a surprisingly deliberate and graceful gesture; closed his
eyes, upon whose lashes there were big filthy tears ... and played....
... and suddenly:
He put the harmonica softly upon the table. He rose. He went quickly to
his _paillasse_. He neither moved nor spoke nor responded to
the calls for more music, to the cries of "_Bis!_"--"_Bien
joue!_"--"_Allez!_"--"_Va-g-y!_" He was crying, quietly and carefully, to
himself ... quietly and carefully crying, not wishing to annoy anyone ...
hoping that people could not see that Their Fool had temporarily failed
in his part.
The following day he was up as usual before anyone else, hunting for
chewed cigarette ends on the spitty slippery floor of The Enormous Room;
ready for insult, ready for ridicule, for buffets, for curses.
One evening, some days after everyone who was fit for _la commission_ had
enjoyed the privilege of examination by that inexorable and delightful
body--one evening very late, in fact, just before _lumieres eteintes_, a
strange _planton_ arrived in The Enormous Room and hurriedly read a list
of five names, adding:
"_demain partis, a bonne heure_"
and shut the door behind him. Surplice was, as usual, very interested,
enormously interested. So were we: for the names respectively belonged to
Monsieur Auguste, Monsieur Pet-airs, The Wanderer, Surplice and The
Spoonman. These men had been judged. These men were going to Precigne.
These men would be _prisoniers pour la duree de la guerre_.
I have already told how Monsieur Pet-airs sat with the frantically
weeping Wanderer writing letters, and sniffing with his big red nose, and
saying from time to time: "Be a man, Demestre, don't cry, crying does no
good."--Monsieur Auguste was broken-hearted. We did our best to cheer
him; we gave him a sort of Last Supper at our bedside, we heated some red
wine in the tin cup and he drank with us. We presented him with certain
tokens of our love and friendship, including--I remember--a huge cheese
... and then, before us, trembling with excitement, stood Surplice--
We asked him to sit down. The onlookers (there were always onlookers at
every function, however personal, which involved Food or Drink) scowled
and laughed. _Le con, surplice, chaude pisse_--how could he sit with men
and gentlemen? Surplice sat down gracefully and lightly on one of our
beds, taking extreme care not to strain the somewhat capricious mechanism
thereof; sat very proudly; erect; modest but unfearful. We offered him a
cup of wine. A kind of huge convulsion gripped, for an instant, fiercely
his entire face: then he said in a whisper of sheer and unspeakable
wonderment, leaning a little toward us without in any way suggesting that
the question might have an affirmative answer,
"_pour moi, monsieur?_"
We smiled at him and said "_Prenez, monsieur._" His eyes opened. I have
never seen eyes since. He remarked quietly, extending one hand with
... Before he left, B. gave him some socks and I presented him with a
flannel shirt, which he took softly and slowly and simply and otherwise
not as an American would take a million dollars.
"I will not forget you," he said to us, as if in his own country he were
a more than very great king ... and I think I know where that country is,
I think I know this; I, who never knew Surplice, know.
* * * * *
For he has the territory of harmonicas, the acres of flutes, the meadows
of clarinets, the domain of violins. And God says: Why did they put you
in prison? What did you do to the people? "I made them dance and they put
me in prison. The soot-people hopped; and to twinkle like sparks on a
chimney-back and I made eighty francs every _dimanche_, and beer and
wine, and to eat well. _Maintenant ... c'est fini ... Et tout suite_
(gesture of cutting himself in two) _la tete_." And He says: "O you who
put the jerk into joys, come up hither. There's a man up here called
Christ who likes the violin."
JEAN LE NEGRE
On a certain day the ringing of the bell and accompanying rush of men to
the window facing the entrance gate was supplemented by an unparalleled
volley of enthusiastic exclamations in all the languages of La Ferte
Mace--provoking in me a certainty that the queen of fair women had
arrived. This certainty thrillingly withered when I heard the cry: "_II y
a un noir!_" Fritz was at the best peep-hole, resisting successfully the
onslaught of a dozen fellow prisoners, and of him I demanded in English,
"Who's come?"--"Oh, a lot of girls," he yelled, "and there's a NIGGER
too"--hereupon writhing with laughter.
I attempted to get a look, but in vain; for by this at least two dozen
men were at the peep-hole, fighting and gesticulating and slapping each
other's back with joy. However, my curiosity was not long in being
answered. I heard on the stairs the sound of mounting feet, and knew that
a couple of _plantons_ would before many minutes arrive at the door with
their new prey. So did everyone else--and from the farthest beds uncouth
figures sprang and rushed to the door, eager for the first glimpse of the
_nouveau_; which was very significant, as the ordinary procedure on
arrival of prisoners was for everybody to rush to his own bed and stand
guard over it.
Even as the _plantons_ fumbled with the locks I heard the inimitable,
unmistakable divine laugh of a negro. The door opened at last. Entered a
beautiful pillar of black strutting muscle topped with a tremendous
display of the whitest teeth on earth. The muscle bowed politely in our
direction, the grin remarked musically: "_Bo'jour, tou'l'monde_"; then
came a cascade of laughter. Its effect on the spectators was
instantaneous: they roared and danced with joy. "_Comment vous
appelez-vous?_" was fired from the hubbub.--"_J'm'appelle Jean, moi_,"
the muscle rapidly answered with sudden solemnity, proudly gazing to left
and right as if expecting a challenge to this statement: but when none
appeared, it relapsed as suddenly into laughter--as if hugely amused at
itself and everyone else including a little and tough boy, whom I had not
previously noted, although his entrance had coincided with the muscle's.
Thus into the _misere_ of La Ferte Mace stepped lightly and proudly Jean
Of all the fine people in La Ferte, Monsieur Jean ("_le noir_" as he was
entitled by his enemies) swaggers in my memory as the finest.
Jean's first act was to complete the distribution (begun, he announced,
among the _plantons_ who had escorted him upstairs) of two pockets full
of Cubebs. Right and left he gave them up to the last, remarking
carelessly, "_J'ne veux, moi._"
_Apres la soupe_ (which occurred a few minutes after _le noir's_ entry)
B. and I and the greater number of prisoners descended to the _cour_ for
our afternoon promenade. The cook spotted us immediately and desired us
to "catch water"; which we did, three cartfuls of it, earning our usual
_cafe sucre_. On quitting the kitchen after this delicious repast (which
as usual mitigated somewhat the effects of the swill that was our
official nutriment) we entered the _cour_. And we noticed at once a
well-made figure standing conspicuously by itself, and poring with
extraordinary intentness over the pages of a London Daily Mail which it
was holding upside-down. The reader was culling choice bits of news of a
highly sensational nature, and exclaiming from time to time: "You don't
say! Look, the King of England is sick. Some news!... What? The queen
too? Good God! What's this?--My father is dead! Oh, well. The war is
over. Good."--It was Jean le Negre, playing a little game with himself to
beguile the time.
When we had mounted _a la chambre_, two or three tried to talk with this
extraordinary personage in French; at which he became very superior and
announced: "_J'suis anglais, moi. Parlez anglais. Comprends pas francais,
moi._" At this a crowd escorted him over to B. and me--anticipating great
deeds in the English language. Jean looked at us critically and said:
"_Vous parlez anglais? Moi parlez anglais._"--"We are Americans, and
speak English," I answered.--"_Moi anglais_," Jean said. "_Mon pere,
capitaine de gendarmes, Londres. Comprends pas francais, moi._
SPEE-Kingliss"--he laughed all over himself.
At this display of English on Jean's part the English-speaking Hollanders
began laughing. "The son of a bitch is crazy," one said.
And from that moment B. and I got on famously with Jean.
His mind was a child's. His use of language was sometimes exalted
fibbing, sometimes the purely picturesque. He courted above all the sound
of words, more or less disdaining their meaning. He told us immediately
(in pidgeon French) that he was born without a mother because his mother
died when he was born, that his father was (first) sixteen (then) sixty
years old, that his father _gagnait cinq cent franc par jour_ (later, par
_annee_), that he was born in London and not in England, that he was in
the French army and had never been in any army.
He did not, however, contradict himself in one statement: "_Les francais
sont des cochons_"--to which we heartily agreed, and which won him the
approvel of the Hollanders.
The next day I had my hands full acting as interpreter for "_le noir qui
comprends pas francais_." I was summoned from the _cour_ to elucidate a
great grief which Jean had been unable to explain to the Gestionnaire. I
mounted with a _planton_ to find Jean in hysterics, speechless, his eyes
starting out of his head. As nearly as I could make out, Jean had had
sixty francs when he arrived, which money he had given to a _planton_
upon his arrival, the _planton_ having told Jean that he would deposit
the money with the Gestionnaire in Jean's name (Jean could not write).
The _planton_ in question who looked particularly innocent denied this
charge upon my explaining Jean's version; while the Gestionnaire puffed
and grumbled, disclaiming any connection with the alleged theft and
protesting sonorously that he was hearing about Jean's sixty francs for
the first time. The Gestionnaire shook his thick piggish finger at the
book wherein all financial transactions were to be found--from the year
one to the present year, month, day, hour and minute (or words to that
effect). "_Mais c'est pas la_" he kept repeating stupidly. The
Surveillant was uh-ahing at a great rate and attempting to pacify Jean in
French. I myself was somewhat fearful for Jean's sanity and highly
indignant at the _planton_. The matter ended with the _planton's_ being
sent about his business; simultaneously with Jean's dismissal to the
_cour_, whither I accompanied him. My best efforts to comfort Jean in
this matter were quite futile. Like a child who has been unjustly
punished he was inconsolable. Great tears welled in his eyes. He kept
repeating "_sees-tee franc--planton voleur_," and--absolutely like a
child who in anguish calls itself by the name which has been given itself
by grown-ups--"steel Jean munee." To no avail I called the _planton_ a
_menteur_, a _voleur_, a _fils d'un chien_, and various other names. Jean
felt the wrong itself too keenly to be interested in my denunciation of
the mere agent through whom injustice had (as it happened) been
But--again like an inconsolable child who weeps his heart out when no
human comfort avails and wakes the next day without an apparent trace of
the recent grief--Jean le Negre, in the course of the next twenty-four
hours, had completely recovered his normal buoyancy of spirit. The
_sees-tee franc_ were gone. A wrong had been done. But that was
and he wandered up and down, joking, laughing, singing "_apres la
guerre finit_." ...
In the _cour_ Jean was the target of all female eyes. Handkerchiefs were
waved to him; phrases of the most amorous nature greeted his every
appearance. To all these demonstrations he by no means turned a deaf ear;
on the contrary. Jean was irrevocably vain. He boasted of having been
enormously popular with the girls wherever he went and of having never
disdained their admiration. In Paris one day--(and thus it happened that
we discovered why _le gouvernement francais_ had arrested Jean)--
One afternoon, having _rien a faire_, and being flush (owing to his
success as a thief, of which vocation he made a great deal, adding as
many ciphers to the amounts as fancy dictated) Jean happened to cast his
eyes in a store window where were displayed all possible appurtenances
for the _militaire_. Vanity was rooted deeply in Jean's soul. The uniform
of an English captain met his eyes. Without a moment's hesitation he
entered the store, bought the entire uniform, including leather puttees
and belt (of the latter purchase he was especially proud), and departed.
The next store contained a display of medals of all descriptions. It
struck Jean at once that a uniform would be incomplete without medals. He
entered this store, bought one of every decoration--not forgetting the
Colonial, nor yet the Belgian Cross (which on account of its size and
colour particularly appealed to him)--and went to his room. There he
adjusted the decorations on the chest of his blouse, donned the uniform,
and sallied importantly forth to capture Paris.
Everywhere he met with success. He was frantically pursued by women of
all stations from _les putains_ to _les princesses._ The police salaamed
to him. His arm was wearied with the returning of innumerable salutes. So
far did his medals carry him that, although on one occasion a _gendarme_
dared to arrest him for beating-in the head of a fellow English officer
(who being a mere lieutenant, should not have objected to Captain Jean's
stealing the affections of his lady), the sergeant of police before whom
Jean was arraigned on a charge of attempting to kill refused to even hear
the evidence, and dismissed the case with profuse apologies to the heroic
Captain. "_'Le gouvernement francais, Monsieur_, extends to you, through
me, its profound apology for the insult which your honour has received.'
_Ils sont des cochons, les francais_," said Jean, and laughed throughout
his entire body.
Having had the most blue-blooded ladies of the capital cooing upon his
heroic chest, having completely beaten up, with the full support of the
law, whosoever of lesser rank attempted to cross his path or refused him
the salute--having had "great fun" saluting generals on _les grands
boulevards_ and being in turn saluted ("_tous les generals, tous_, salute
me, Jean have more medals"), and this state of affairs having lasted for
about three months--Jean began to be very bored (me _tres ennuye_). A fit
of temper ("me _tres fache_") arising from this _ennui_ led to a _rixe_
with the police, in consequence of which (Jean, though outnumbered three
to one, having almost killed one of his assailants), our hero was a
second time arrested. This time the authorities went so far as to ask the
heroic captain to what branch of the English army he was at present
attached; to which Jean first replied "_parle pas francais, moi_," and
immediately after announced that he was a Lord of the Admiralty, that he
had committed robberies in Paris to the tune of _sees meel-i-own franc_,
that he was a son of the Lord Mayor of London by the Queen, that he had
lost a leg in Algeria, and that the French were _cochons_. All of which
assertions being duly disproved, Jean was remanded to La Ferte for
psychopathic observation and safe keeping on the technical charge of
wearing an English officer's uniform.
Jean's particular girl at La Ferte was "LOO-Loo." With Lulu it was the
same as with _les princesses_ in Paris--"me no _travaille, jam-MAIS. Les
femmes travaillent_, geev Jean mun-ee, _sees, sees-tee, see-cent francs.
Jamais travaille, moi._" Lulu smuggled Jean money; and not for some time
did the woman who slept next Lulu miss it. Lulu also sent Jean a lace
embroidered handkerchief, which Jean would squeeze and press to his lips
with a beatific smile of perfect contentment. The affair with Lulu kept
Mexique and Pete The Hollander busy writing letters; which Jean dictated,
rolling his eyes and scratching his head for words.
At this time Jean was immensely happy. He was continually playing
practical jokes on one of the Hollanders, or Mexique, or the Wanderer,
or, in fact, anyone of whom he was particularly fond. At intervals
between these demonstrations of irrepressibility (which kept everyone in
a state of laughter) he would stride up and down the filth-sprinkled
floor with his hands in the pockets of his stylish jacket, singing at the
top of his lungs his own version of the famous song of songs:
_apres la guerre finit,
soldat anglais parti,
mademoiselle que je laissais en France
avec des pickaninee._ PLENTY!
and laughing till he shook and had to lean against a wall.
B. and Mexique made some dominoes. Jean had not the least idea of how to
play, but when we three had gathered for a game he was always to be found
leaning over our shoulders, completely absorbed, once in a while offered
us sage advice, laughing utterly when someone made a _cinque_ or a
One afternoon, in the interval between _la soupe_ and _promenade_, Jean
was in especially high spirits. I was lying down on my collapsible bed
when he came up to my end of the room and began showing off exactly like
a child. This time it was the game of _l'armee francaise_ which Jean was
playing.--"_Jamais soldat, moi. Connais tous l'armee francaise._" John
The Bathman, stretched comfortably in his bunk near me, grunted.
"_Tous_," Jean repeated.--And he stood in front of us; stiff as a stick
in imitation of a French lieutenant with an imaginary company in front of
him. First he would be the lieutenant giving commands, then he would be
the Army executing them. He began with the manual of arms. "_Com-pag-nie
..._" then, as he went through the manual, holding his imaginary
gun--"_htt, htt, htt_."--Then as the officer commending his troops:
"_Bon. Tres bon. Tres bien fait_"--laughing with head thrown back and
teeth aglitter at his own success. John le Baigneur was so tremendously
amused that he gave up sleeping to watch. _L'armee_ drew a crowd of
admirers from every side. For at least three-quarters of an hour this