Part 2 out of 5
"_Vous etes, uh-ah, l'Am-e-ri-cain?_"
"_Je suis Americain_," I admitted.
"_Eh-bi-en uh-ah uh-ah_--We were expecting you." He surveyed me with
Behind this seedy and restless personage I noted his absolute likeness,
adorning one of the walls. The rooster was faithfully depicted a la
Rembrandt at half-length in the stirring guise of a fencer, foil in hand,
and wearing enormous gloves. The execution of this masterpiece left
something to be desired; but the whole betokened a certain spirit and
verve, on the part of the sitter, which I found difficulty in attributing
to the being before me.
"_Vous etes uh-ah KEW-MANGZ?_"
"What?" I said, completely baffled by this extraordinary dissyllable.
"_Comprenez vous fran-cais?_"
"_Bon. Alors, vous vous ap-pel-lez KEW MANGZ, m'est-ce pas? Edouard
"Oh," I said, relieved, "yes." It was really amazing, the way he writhed
around the G.
"_Comment ca se prononce en anglais?_"
I told him.
He replied benevolently, somewhat troubled "uh-ah uh-ah uh-ah--why are
you here, KEW-MANGZ?"
At this question I was for one moment angrier than I had ever before been
in all my life. Then I realized the absurdity of the situation, and
The questionnaire continued:
"You were in the Red Cross?"--"Surely, in the Norton Harjes
Ambulance, Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un."--"You had a friend
there?"--"Naturally."--"_Il a ecrit, votre ami, des betises, n'est ce
pas?_"--"So they told me. _N'en sais rien._"--"What sort of person was
your friend?"--"He was a magnificent person, always _tres gentil_ with
me."--(With a queer pucker the fencer remarked) "Your friend got you into
a lot of trouble, though."--(To which I replied with a broad grin)
"_N'importe_, we are _camarades_."
A stream of puzzled uh-ahs followed this reply. The fencer, or rooster or
whatever he might be, finally, picking up the lamp and the lock, said:
"_Alors, viens avec moi, KEW-MANGZ._" I started to pick up the _sac_, but
he told me it would be kept in the office (we being in the office). I
said I had checked a large _sac_ and my fur overcoat at Briouse, and he
assured me they would be sent on by train. He now dismissed the
_gendarmes_, who had been listening curiously to the examination. As I
was conducted from the bureau I asked him point-blank: "How long am I to
stay here?"--to which he answered "_Oh, peutetre un jour, deux jours, je
ne sais pas._"
Two days in a _gendarmerie_ would be enough, I thought. We marched out.
Behind me the bedslippered rooster uhahingly shuffled. In front of me
clumsily gamboled the huge imitation of myself. It descended the terribly
worn stairs. It turned to the right and disappeared....
We were standing in a chapel.
The shrinking light which my guide held had become suddenly minute; it
was beating, senseless and futile, with shrill fists upon a thick
enormous moisture of gloom. To the left and right through lean oblongs of
stained glass burst dirty burglars of moonlight. The clammy stupid
distance uttered dimly an uncanny conflict--the mutterless tumbling of
brutish shadows. A crowding ooze battled with my lungs. My nostrils
fought against the monstrous atmospheric slime which hugged a sweet
unpleasant odour. Staring ahead, I gradually disinterred the pale carrion
of the darkness--an altar, guarded with the ugliness of unlit candles, on
which stood inexorably the efficient implements for eating God.
I was to be confessed, then, of my guilty conscience, before retiring? It
boded well for the morrow.
... the measured accents of the fencer: "_Prenez votre paillasse._" I
turned. He was bending over a formless mass in one corner of the room.
The mass stretched halfway to the ceiling. It was made of
mattress-shapes. I pulled at one--burlap, stuffed with prickly straw. I
got it on my shoulder. "_Alors._" He lighted me to the door-way by which
we had entered. (I was somewhat pleased to leave the place.)
Back, down a corridor, up more stairs; and we were confronted by a small
scarred pair of doors from which hung two of the largest padlocks I had
ever seen. Being unable to go further, I stopped: he produced a huge ring
of keys. Fumbled with the locks. No sound of life: the keys rattled in
the locks with surprising loudness; the latter, with an evil grace,
yielded--the two little miserable doors swung open.
Into the square blackness I staggered with my _paillasse_. There was no
way of judging the size of the dark room which uttered no sound. In front
of me was a pillar. "Put it down by that post, and sleep there for
tonight, in the morning _nous allons voir_" directed the fencer. "You
won't need a blanket," he added; and the doors clanged, the light and
I needed no second invitation to sleep. Fully dressed, I fell on my
_paillasse_ with a weariness which I have never felt before or since. But
I did not close my eyes: for all about me there rose a sea of most
extraordinary sound... the hitherto empty and minute room became suddenly
enormous: weird cries, oaths, laughter, pulling it sideways and backward,
extending it to inconceivable depth and width, telescoping it to
frightful nearness. From all directions, by at least thirty voices in
eleven languages (I counted as I lay Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Turkish,
Arabian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, German, French--and English) at
distances varying from seventy feet to a few inches, for twenty minutes I
was ferociously bombarded. Nor was my perplexity purely aural. About five
minutes after lying down, I saw (by a hitherto unnoticed speck of light
which burned near the doors which I had entered) two extraordinary
looking figures--one a well-set man with a big, black beard, the other a
consumptive with a bald head and sickly moustache, both clad only in
their knee-length chemises, hairy legs naked, feet bare--wander down the
room and urinate profusely in the corner nearest me. This act
accomplished, the figures wandered back, greeted with a volley of
ejaculatory abuse from the invisible co-occupants of my new
sleeping-apartment; and disappeared in darkness.
I remarked to myself that the _gendarmes_ of this _gendarmerie_ were
peculiarly up in languages, and fell asleep.
_"Vous ne voulez pas de cafe?"_
The threatening question recited in a hoarse voice woke me like a shot.
Sprawled half on and half off my _paillasse_, I looked suddenly up into a
juvenile pimply face with a red tassel bobbing in its eyes. A boy in a
Belgian uniform was stooping over me. In one hand a huge pail a third
full of liquid slime. I said fiercely: "_Au contraire, je veux bien._"
And collapsed on the mattress.
"_Pas de quart, vous?_" the face fired at me.
"_Comprends pas_," I replied, wondering what on earth the words meant.
At this moment a tin cup appeared mysteriously out of the gloom and was
rapidly filled from the pail, after which operation the tassel remarked:
"Your friend here" and disappeared.
I decided I had gone completely crazy.
The cup had been deposited near me. Not daring to approach it, I boosted
my aching corpse on one of its futile elbows and gazed blankly around. My
eyes, wading laboriously through a dark atmosphere, a darkness gruesomely
tactile, perceived only here and there lively patches of vibrating
humanity. My ears recognised English, something which I took to be
low-German and which was Belgian, Dutch, Polish, and what I guessed to be
Trembling with this chaos, my hand sought the cup. The cup was not warm;
the contents, which I hastily gulped, were not even tepid. The taste was
dull, almost bitter, clinging, thick, nauseating. I felt a renewed
interest in living as soon as the deathful swallow descended to my
abdomen, very much as a suicide who changes his mind after the fatal
dose. I decided that it would be useless to vomit. I sat up. I looked
The darkness was rapidly going out of the sluggish stinking air. I was
sitting on my mattress at one end of a sort of room, filled with pillars;
ecclesiastical in feeling. I already perceived it to be of enormous
length. My mattress resembled an island: all around it on the floor at
distances varying from a quarter of an inch to ten feet (which
constituted the limit of distinct vision) reposed startling identities.
There was blood in some of them. Others consisted of a rind of blueish
matter sustaining a core of yellowish froth. From behind me a chunk of
hurtling spittle joined its fellows. I decided to stand up.
At this moment, at the far end of the room, I seemed to see an
extraordinary vulture-like silhouette leap up from nowhere. It rushed a
little way in my direction crying hoarsely "_Corvee d'eau!_"--stopped,
bent down at what I perceived to be a _paillasse_ like mine, jerked what
was presumably the occupant by the feet, shook him, turned to the next,
and so on up to six. As there seemed to be innumerable _paillasses_, laid
side by side at intervals of perhaps a foot with their heads to the wall
on three sides of me, I was wondering why the vulture had stopped at six.
On each mattress a crude imitation of humanity, wrapped ear-high in its
blanket, lay and drank from a cup like mine and spat long and high into
the room. The ponderous reek of sleepy bodies undulated toward me from
three directions. I had lost sight of the vulture in a kind of insane
confusion which arose from the further end of the room. It was as if he
had touched off six high explosives. Occasional pauses in the minutely
crazy din were accurately punctuated by exploding bowels; to the great
amusement of innumerable somebodies, whose precise whereabouts the gloom
I felt that I was the focus of a group of indistinct recumbents who were
talking about me to one another in many incomprehensible tongues. I
noticed beside every pillar (including the one beside which I had
innocently thrown down my mattress the night before) a good sized pail,
overflowing with urine, and surrounded by a large irregular puddle. My
mattress was within an inch of the nearest puddle. What I took to be a
man, an amazing distance off, got out of bed and succeeded in locating
the pail nearest to him after several attempts. Ten invisible recumbents
yelled at him in six languages.
All at once a handsome figure rose from the gloom at my elbow. I smiled
stupidly into his clear hardish eyes. And he remarked pleasantly:
"Your friend's here, Johnny, and wants to see you."
A bulge of pleasure swooped along my body, chasing aches and numbness, my
muscles danced, nerves tingled in perpetual holiday.
B. was lying on his camp-cot, wrapped like an Eskimo in a blanket which
hid all but his nose and eyes.
"Hello, Cummings," he said smiling. "There's a man here who is a friend
of Vanderbilt and knew Cezanne."
I gazed somewhat critically at B. There was nothing particularly insane
about him, unless it was his enthusiastic excitement, which might almost
be attributed to my jack-in-the-box manner of arriving. He said: "There
are people here who speak English, Russian, Arabian. There are the finest
people here! Did you go to Gre? I fought rats all night there. Huge ones.
They tried to eat me. And from Gre to Paris? I had three gendarmes all
the way to keep me from escaping, and they all fell asleep."
I began to be afraid that I was asleep myself. "Please be frank," I
begged. "Strictly _entre nous_: am I dreaming, or is this a bug-house?"
B. laughed, and said: "I thought so when I arrived two days ago. When I
came in sight of the place a lot of girls waved from the window and
yelled at me. I no sooner got inside than a queer looking duck whom I
took to be a nut came rushing up to me and cried: 'Too late for
soup!'--This is Campe de Triage de la Ferte Mace, Orne, France, and all
these fine people were arrested as spies. Only two or three of them can
speak a word of French, and that's _soupe!_"
I said, "My God, I thought Marseilles was somewhere on the Mediterranean
Ocean, and that this was a _gendarmerie_."
"But this is M-a-c-e. It's a little mean town, where everybody snickers
and sneers at you if they see you're a prisoner. They did at me."
"Do you mean to say we're _espions_ too?"
"Of course!" B. said enthusiastically. "Thank God! And in to stay. Every
time I think of the _section sanitaire_, and A. and his thugs, and the
whole rotten red-taped Croix Rouge, I have to laugh. Cummings, I tell you
this is the finest place on earth!"
A vision of the Chef de la section Sanitaire Ving-et-Un passed through my
mind. The doughy face. Imitation-English-officer swagger. Large calves,
squeaking puttees. The daily lecture: "I doughno what's th'matter with
you fellers. You look like nice boys. Well-edjucated. But you're so dirty
in your habits. You boys are always kickin' because I don't put you on a
car together. I'm ashamed to do it, that's why. I doughtwanta give this
section a black eye. We gotta show these lousy Frenchmen what Americans
are. We gotta show we're superior to 'em. Those bastards doughno what a
bath means. And you fellers are always hangin' 'round, talkin' with them
dirty frog-eaters that does the cookin' and the dirty work 'round here.
How d'you boys expect me to give you a chance? I'd like to put you
fellers on a car, I wanta see you boys happy. But I don't dare to, that's
why. If you want me to send you out, you gotta shave and look neat, and
_keep away from them dirty Frenchmen_. We Americans are over here to
learn them lousy bastards something."
I laughed for sheer joy.
A terrific tumult interrupted my mirth. "_Par ici!_"--"Get out of the way
you damn Polak!"--"M'sieu, M'sieu!"--"Over here!"--"_Mais
non!_"--"_Gott-ver-dummer!_" I turned in terror to see my _paillasse_ in
the clutches of four men who were apparently rending it in as many
One was a clean-shaven youngish man with lively eyes, alert and muscular,
whom I identified as the man who had called me "Johnny." He had hold of a
corner of the mattress and was pulling against the possessor of the
opposite corner: an incoherent personage enveloped in a buffoonery of
amazing rags and patches, with a shabby head on which excited wisps of
dirty hair stood upright in excitement, and the tall, ludicrous,
extraordinary, almost noble figure of a dancing bear. A third corner of
the _paillasse_ was rudely grasped by a six-foot combination of yellow
hair, red hooligan face, and sky-blue trousers; assisted by the
undersized tasseled mucker in Belgian uniform, with a pimply rogue's mug
and unlimited impertinence of diction, who had awakened me by demanding
if I wanted coffee. Albeit completely dazed by the uncouth vocal fracas,
I realised in some manner that these hostile forces were contending, not
for the possession of the mattress, but merely for the privilege of
presenting the mattress to myself.
Before I could offer any advice on this delicate topic, a childish voice
cried emphatically beside my ear: "Put the mattress here! What are you
trying to do? There's no use destroy-ing a mat-tress!"--at the same
moment the mattress rushed with cobalt strides in my direction, propelled
by the successful efforts of the Belgian uniform and the hooligan visage,
the clean-shaven man and the incoherent bear still desperately clutching
their respective corners; and upon its arrival was seized with surprising
strength by the owner of the child's voice--a fluffy little gnome-shaped
man with a sensitive face which had suffered much--and indignantly
deposited beside B.'s bed in a space mysteriously cleared for its
reception. The gnome immediately kneeled upon it and fell to carefully
smoothing certain creases caused by the recent conflict, exclaiming
slowly syllable by syllable: "Mon Dieu. Now, that's better, you mustn't
do things like that." The clean-shaven man regarded him loftily with
folded arms, while the tassel and the trousers victoriously inquired if I
had a cigarette?--and upon receiving one apiece (also the gnome, and the
clean-shaven man, who accepted his with some dignity) sat down without
much ado on B.'s bed--which groaned ominously in protest--and hungrily
fired questions at me. The bear meanwhile, looking as if nothing had
happened, adjusted his ruffled costume with a satisfied air and (calmly
gazing into the distance) began with singularly delicate fingers to stuff
a stunted and ancient pipe with what appeared to be a mixture of wood and
I was still answering questions, when a gnarled voice suddenly
threatened, over our head: "Broom? You. Everybody. Clean. _Surveillant_
says. Not me, no?"--I started, expecting to see a parrot.
It was the silhouette.
A vulture-like figure stood before me, a demoralised broom clenched in
one claw or fist: it had lean legs cased in shabby trousers, muscular
shoulders covered with a rough shirt open at the neck, knotted arms, and
a coarse insane face crammed beneath the visor of a cap. The face
consisted of a rapid nose, droopy moustache, ferocious watery small eyes,
a pugnacious chin, and sunken cheeks hideously smiling. There was
something in the ensemble at once brutal and ridiculous, vigorous and
Again I had not time to speak; for the hooligan in azure trousers hurled
his butt at the bear's feet, exclaiming: "There's another for you,
Polak!"--jumped from the bed, seized the broom, and poured upon the
vulture a torrent of _Gott-ver-dummers_, to which the latter replied
copiously and in kind. Then the red face bent within a few inches of my
own, and for the first time I saw that it had recently been young--"I say
I do your sweep for you" it translated pleasantly. I thanked it; and the
vulture, exclaiming: "Good. Good. Not me. _Surveillant._ Harree does it
for everybody. Hee, hee"--rushed off, followed by Harree and the tassel.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched the tall, ludicrous, extraordinary,
almost proud figure of the bear stoop with quiet dignity, the musical
fingers close with a singular delicacy upon the moist indescribable
eighth-of-an-inch of tobacco.
I did not know that this was a Delectable Mountain....
The clean-shaven man (who appeared to have been completely won over by
his smoke), and the fluffy gnome, who had completed the arrangement of my
_paillasse_, now entered into conversation with myself and B.; the
clean-shaven one seating himself in Harree's stead, the gnome declining
(on the grounds that the bed was already sufficiently loaded) to occupy
the place left vacant by the tassel's exit, and leaning against the drab,
sweating, poisonous wall. He managed, however, to call our attention to
the shelf at B.'s head which he himself had constructed, and promised me
a similar luxury _toute de suite_. He was a Russian, and had a wife and
_gosse_ in Paris. "My name is Monsieur Au-guste, at your service"--and
his gentle pale eyes sparkled. The clean-shaven talked distinct and
absolutely perfect English. His name was Fritz. He was a Norwegian, a
stoker on a ship. "You mustn't mind that feller that wanted you to sweep.
He's crazy. They call him John the Baigneur. He used to be the bathman.
Now he's _Maitre de Chambre_. They wanted me to take it--I said, 'F----
it, I don't want it.' Let him have it. That's no kind of a job, everyone
complaining and on top of you morning till night. 'Let them that wants
the job take it' I said. That crazy Dutchman's been here for two years.
They told him to get out and he wouldn't, he was too fond of the booze"
(I jumped at the slang) "and the girls. They took it away from John and
give it to that little Ree-shar feller, that doctor. That was a swell job
he had, _baigneur_, too. All the bloody liquor you can drink and a girl
every time you want one. He ain't never had a girl in his life, that
Ree-shar feller." His laughter was hard, clear, cynical. "That Pompom,
the little Belgian feller was just here, he's a great one for the girls.
He and Harree. Always getting _cabinot_. I got it twice myself since I
All this time the enormous room was filling gradually with dirty light.
In the further end six figures were brooming furiously, yelling to each
other in the dust like demons. A seventh, Harree, was loping to and fro
splashing water from a pail and enveloping everything and everybody in a
ponderous and blasphemous fog of _Gott-ver-dummers_. Along three sides
(with the exception, that is, of the nearer end, which boasted the sole
door) were laid, with their lengths at right angles to the wall, at
intervals of three or four feet, something like forty _paillasses_. On
each, with half a dozen exceptions (where the occupants had not yet
finished their coffee or were on duty for the _corvee_) lay the headless
body of a man smothered in its blanket, only the boots showing.
The demons were working towards our end of the room. Harree had got his
broom and was assisting. Nearer and nearer they came; converging, they
united their separate heaps of filth in a loudly stinking single mound at
the door. Brooms were stacked against the wall in the corner. The men
strolled back to their mattresses.
Monsieur Auguste, whose French had not been able to keep pace with
Fritz's English, saw his chance, and proposed "now that the Room is all
clean, let us go take a little walk, the three of us." Fritz understood
perfectly, and rose, remarking as he fingered his immaculate chin "Well,
I guess I'll take a shave before the bloody _planton_ comes"--and
Monsieur Auguste, B., and I started down the room.
It was in shape oblong, about 80 feet by 40, unmistakably ecclesiastical
in feeling; two rows of wooden pillars, spaced at intervals of fifteen
feet, rose to a vaulted ceiling 25 or 30 feet above the floor. As you
stood with your back to the door, and faced down the room, you had in the
near right-hand corner (where the brooms stood) six pails of urine. On
the right-hand long wall, a little beyond the angle of this corner, a few
boards, tacked together in any fashion to make a two-sided screen four
feet in height, marked the position of a _cabinet d'aisance_, composed of
a small coverless tin pail identical with the other six, and a board of
the usual design which could be placed on the pail or not as desired. The
wooden floor in the neighborhood of the booth and pails was of a dark
colour, obviously owing to the continual overflow of their contents.
The right-hand long wall contained something like ten large windows, of
which the first was commanded by the somewhat primitive cabinet. There
were no other windows in the remaining walls; or they had been carefully
rendered useless. In spite of this fact, the inhabitants had contrived a
couple of peep-holes--one in the door-end and one in the left-hand long
wall; the former commanding the gate by which I had entered, the latter a
portion of the street by which I had reached the gate. The blocking of
all windows on three sides had an obvious significance: _les hommes_ were
not supposed to see anything which went on in the world without; _les
hommes_ might, however, look their fill on a little washing-shed, on a
corner of what seemed to be another wing of the building, and on a bleak
lifeless abject landscape of scrubby woods beyond--which constituted the
view from the ten windows on the right. The authorities had miscalculated
a little in one respect: a merest fraction of the barb-wire pen which
began at the corner of the above-mentioned building was visible from
these windows, which windows (I was told) were consequently thronged by
fighting men at the time of the girl's promenade. A _planton_, I was also
told, made it his business, by keeping _les femmes_ out of this corner of
their _cour_ at the point of the bayonet to deprive them of the sight of
their admirers. In addition, it was dry bread or _cabinot_ for any of
either sex who were caught communicating with each other. Moreover the
promenades of the men and the women occurred at roughly speaking the same
hour, so that a man or woman who remained upstairs on the chance of
getting a smile or a wave from his or her girl or lover lost the
We had in succession gazed from the windows, crossed the end of the room,
and started down the other side, Monsieur Auguste marching between
us--when suddenly B. exclaimed in English "Good morning! How are you
today?" And I looked across Monsieur Auguste, anticipating another Harree
or at least a Fritz. What was my surprise to see a spare majestic figure
of manifest refinement, immaculately apparelled in a crisp albeit
collarless shirt, carefully mended trousers in which the remains of a
crease still lingered, a threadbare but perfectly fitting swallow-tail
coat, and newly varnished (if somewhat ancient) shoes. Indeed for the
first time since my arrival at La Ferte I was confronted by a perfect
type: the apotheosis of injured nobility, the humiliated victim of
perfectly unfortunate circumstances, the utterly respectable gentleman
who had seen better days. There was about him, moreover, something
irretrievably English, nay even pathetically Victorian--it was as if a
page of Dickens was shaking my friend's hand. "Count Bragard, I want you
to meet my friend Cummings"--he saluted me in modulated and courteous
accents of indisputable culture, gracefully extending his pale hand. "I
have heard a great deal about you from B., and wanted very much to meet
you. It is a pleasure to find a friend of my friend B., someone congenial
and intelligent in contrast to these swine"--he indicated the room with a
gesture of complete contempt. "I see you were strolling. Let us take a
turn." Monsieur Auguste said tactfully, "I'll see you soon, friends," and
left us with an affectionate shake of the hand and a sidelong glance of
jealousy and mistrust at B.'s respectable friend.
"You're looking pretty well today, Count Bragard," B. said amiably.
"I do well enough," the Count answered. "It is a frightful strain--you of
course realise that--for anyone who has been accustomed to the decencies,
let alone the luxuries, of life. This filth"--he pronounced the word with
indescribable bitterness--"this herding of men like cattle--they treat us
no better than pigs here. The fellows drop their dung in the very room
where they sleep. What is one to expect of a place like this? _Ce n'est
pas une existence_"--his French was glib and faultless.
"I was telling my friend that you knew Cezanne," said B. "Being an artist
he was naturally much interested."
Count Bragard stopped in astonishment, and withdrew his hands slowly from
the tails of his coat. "Is it possible!" he exclaimed, in great
agitation. "What an astonishing coincidence! I am myself a painter. You
perhaps noticed this badge"--he indicated a button attached to his left
lapel, and I bent and read the words: On War Service. "I always wear it,"
he said with a smile of faultless sorrow, and resumed his walk. "They
don't know what it means here, but I wear it all the same. I was a
special representative for The London Sphere at the front in this war. I
did the trenches and all that sort of thing. They paid me well; I got
fifteen pounds a week. And why not? I am an R.A. My specialty was horses.
I painted the finest horses in England, among them the King's own entry
in the last Derby. Do you know London?" We said no. "If you are ever in
London, go to the" (I forget the name) "Hotel--one of the best in town.
It has a beautiful large bar, exquisitely furnished in the very best
taste. Anyone will tell you where to find the ----. It has one of my
paintings over the bar: "Straight-jacket" (or some such name) "the
Marquis of ----'s horse, who won last time the race was run. I was in
America in 1910. You know Cornelius Vanderbilt perhaps? I painted some of
his horses. We were the best of friends, Vanderbilt and I. I got handsome
prices, you understand, three, five, six thousand pounds. When I left, he
gave me this card--I have it here somewhere--" he again stopped, sought
in his breastpocket a moment, and produced a visiting card. On one side I
read the name "Cornelius Vanderbilt"--on the other, in bold
handwriting--"to my very dear friend Count F.A. de Bragard" and a date.
"He hated to have me go."
I was walking in a dream.
"Have you your sketch-books and paints with you? What a pity. I am always
intending to send to England for mine, but you know--one can't paint in a
place like this. It is impossible--all this dirt and these filthy
people--it stinks! Ugh!"
I forced myself to say: "How did you happen to come here?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "How indeed, you may well ask! I cannot tell
you. It must have been some hideous mistake. As soon as I got here I
spoke to the Directeur and to the Surveillant. The Directeur said he knew
nothing about it; the Surveillant told me confidentially that it was a
mistake on the part of the French government; that I would be out
directly. He's not such a bad sort. So I am waiting; every day I expect
orders from the English government for my release. The whole thing is
preposterous. I wrote to the Embassy and told them so. As soon as I set
foot outside this place, I shall sue the French government for ten
thousand pounds for the loss of time it has occasioned me. Imagine it--I
had contracts with countless members of The Lords--and the war came. Then
I was sent to the front by The Sphere--and here I am, every day costing
me dear, rotting away in this horrible place. The time I have wasted here
has already cost me a fortune."
He paused directly in front of the door and spoke with solemnity: "A man
might as well be dead."
Scarcely had the words passed his lips when I almost jumped out of my
skin, for directly before us on the other side of the wall arose the very
noise which announced to Scrooge the approach of Marley's ghost--a dismal
clanking and rattling of chains. Had Marley's transparent figure walked
straight through the wall and up to the Dickensian character at my side,
I would have been less surprised than I was by what actually happened.
The doors opened with an uncanny bang and in the bang stood a fragile
minute queer figure, remotely suggesting an old man. The chief
characteristic of the apparition was a certain disagreeable nudity which
resulted from its complete lack of all the accepted appurtenances and
prerogatives of old age. Its little stooping body, helpless and brittle,
bore with extraordinary difficulty a head of absurd largeness, yet which
moved on the fleshless neck with a horrible agility. Dull eyes sat in the
clean-shaven wrinkles of a face neatly hopeless. At the knees a pair of
hands hung, infantile in their smallness. In the loose mouth a tiny
cigarette had perched and was solemnly smoking itself.
Suddenly the figure darted at me with a spiderlike entirety.
I felt myself lost.
A voice said mechanically from the vicinity of my feet: "_II vous faut
prendre la douche_"--I stared stupidly. The spectre was poised before me;
its averted eyes contemplated the window. "Take your bath," it added as
an afterthought, in English--"Come with me." It turned suddenly. It
hurried to the doorway. I followed. Its rapid deadly doll-like hands shut
and skillfully locked the doors in a twinkling. "Come," its voice said.
It hurried before me down two dirty flights of narrow mutilated stairs.
It turned left, and passed through an open door.
I found myself in the wet sunless air of morning.
To the right it hurried, following the wall of the building. I pursued it
mechanically. At the corner, which I had seen from the window upstairs,
the barbed-wire fence eight feet in height began. The thing paused,
produced a key and unlocked a gate. The first three or four feet of wire
swung inward. He entered. I after him.
In a flash the gate was locked behind me, and I was following along a
wall at right angles to the first. I strode after the thing. A moment
before I had been walking in a free world: now I was again a prisoner.
The sky was still over me, the clammy morning caressed me; but walls of
wire and stone told me that my instant of freedom had departed. I was in
fact traversing a lane no wider than the gate; on my left, barbed-wire
separated me from the famous _cour_ in which _les femmes se promenent_--a
rectangle about 50 feet deep and 200 long, with a stone wall at the
further end of it and otherwise surrounded by wire;--on my right, grey
sameness of stone, the _ennui_ of the regular and the perpendicular, the
ponderous ferocity of silence....
I had taken automatically some six or eight steps in pursuit of the
fleeing spectre when, right over my head, the grey stone curdled with a
female darkness; the hard and the angular softening in a putrescent
explosion of thick wriggling laughter. I started, looked up, and
encountered a window stuffed with four savage fragments of crowding Face:
four livid, shaggy disks focussing hungrily; four pair of uncouth eyes
rapidly smouldering; eight lips shaking in a toothless and viscous
titter. Suddenly above and behind these terrors rose a single horror of
beauty--a crisp vital head, a young ivory, actual face, a night of firm,
alive, icy hair, a white, large, frightful smile.
... The thing was crying two or three paces in front of me: "Come!" The
heads had vanished as by magic.
I dived forward; followed through a little door in the wall into a room
about fifteen feet square, occupied by a small stove, a pile of wood, and
a ladder. He plunged through another even smaller door, into a bleak
rectangular place, where I was confronted on the left by a large tin bath
and on the right by ten wooden tubs, each about a yard in diameter, set
in a row against the wall. "Undress" commanded the spectre. I did so. "Go
into the first one." I climbed into the tub. "You shall pull the string,"
the spectre said, hurriedly throwing his cigarette into a corner. I
stared upward, and discovered a string dangling from a kind of reservoir
over my head: I pulled: and was saluted by a stabbing crash of icy water.
I leaped from the tub. "Here is your napkin. Make dry yourself"--he
handed me a piece of cloth a little bigger than a handkerchief. "Hurree."
I donned my clothes, wet and shivering and altogether miserable. "Good.
Come now!" I followed him, through the room with the stove, into the
barbed-wire lane. A hoarse shout rose from the yard--which was filled
with women, girls, children, and a baby or two. I thought I recognised
one of the four terrors who had saluted me from the window, in a girl of
18 with a soiled slobby body huddling beneath its dingy dress; her bony
shoulders stifled in a shawl upon which excremental hair limply spouted;
a huge empty mouth; and a red nose, sticking between the bluish cheeks
that shook with spasms of coughing. Just inside the wire a figure
reminiscent of Gre, gun on shoulder, revolver on hip, moved monotonously.
The apparition hurried me through the gate, and along the wall into the
building, where instead of mounting the stairs he pointed down a long,
gloomy corridor with a square of light at the end of it, saying rapidly,
"Go to the promenade"--and vanished.
With the laughter of the Five still ringing in my ears, and no very clear
conception of the meaning of existence, I stumbled down the corridor;
bumping squarely into a beefy figure with a bull's neck and the familiar
revolver who demanded furiously: "What are you doing there? _Nom de
Dieu!_"--"_Pardon. Les douches_," I answered, quelled by the
collision.--He demanded in wrathy French "Who took you to the
douches?"--For a moment I was at a complete loss--then Fritz's remark
about the new _baigneur_ flashed through my mind: "Ree-shar" I answered
calmly.--The bull snorted satisfactorily. "Get into the _cour_ and hurry
up about it" he ordered.--"_C'est par la?_" I inquired politely.--He
stared at me contemptuously without answering; so I took it upon myself
to use the nearest door, hoping that he would have the decency not to
shoot me. I had no sooner crossed the threshold when I found myself once
more in the welcome air; and not ten paces away I espied B. peacefully
lounging, with some thirty others, within a _cour_ about one quarter the
size of the women's. I marched up to a little dingy gate in the
barbed-wire fence, and was hunting for the latch (as no padlock was in
evidence) when a scared voice cried loudly "_Qu'est ce que vous faites
la!_" and I found myself stupidly looking into a rifle. B., Fritz,
Harree, Pompom, Monsieur Auguste, The Bear, and the last but not least
Count de Bragard immediately informed the trembling _planton_ that I was
a _Nouveau_ who had just returned from the _douches_ to which I had been
escorted by Monsieur Reeshar, and that I should be admitted to the _cour_
by all means. The cautious watcher of the skies was not, however, to be
fooled by any such fol-de-rol and stood his ground. Fortunately at this
point the beefy _planton_ yelled from the doorway "Let him in," and I was
accordingly let in, to the gratification of my friends, and against the
better judgment of the guardian of the _cour_, who muttered something
about having more than enough to do already.
I had not been mistaken as to the size of the men's yard: it was
certainly not more than twenty yards deep and fifteen wide. By the
distinctness with which the shouts of _les femmes_ reached my ears I
perceived that the two _cours_ adjoined. They were separated by a stone
wall ten feet in height, which I had already remarked (while _en route_
to _les douches_) as forming one end of the _cour des femmes_. The men's
_cour_ had another stone wall slightly higher than the first, and which
ran parallel to it; the two remaining sides, which were property ends,
were made by the familiar barbed-wire.
The furniture of the _cour_ was simple: in the middle of the further end,
a wooden sentry-box was placed just inside the wire; a curious
contrivance, which I discovered to be a sister to the booth upstairs,
graced the wall on the left which separated the two _cours_, while
further up on this wall a horizontal iron bar projected from the stone at
a height of seven feet and was supported at its other end by a wooden
post, the idea apparently being to give the prisoners a little taste of
gymnastics; a minute wooden shed filled the right upper corner and served
secondarily as a very partial shelter for the men and primarily as a
stable for an extraordinary water-wagon, composed of a wooden barrel on
two wheels with shafts which would not possibly accommodate anything
larger than a diminutive donkey (but in which I myself was to walk not
infrequently, as it proved); parallel to the second stone wall, but at a
safe distance from it, stretched a couple of iron girders serving as a
barbarously cold seat for any unfortunate who could not remain on his
feet the entire time; on the ground close by the shed lay amusement
devices numbers two and three--a huge iron cannon-ball and the six-foot
iron axle of a departed wagon--for testing the strength of the prisoners
and beguiling any time which might lie heavily on their hands after they
had regaled themselves with the horizontal bar; and finally, a dozen
mangy apple-trees, fighting for their very lives in the angry soil,
proclaimed to all the world that the _cour_ itself was in reality a
"Les pommiers sont pleins de pommes;
Allons au verger, Simone...."
A description of the _cour_ would be incomplete without an enumeration of
the manifold duties of the _planton_ in charge, which were as follows: to
prevent the men from using the horizontal bar, except for chinning, since
if you swung yourself upon it you could look over the wall into the
women's _cour_; to see that no one threw anything over the wall into said
_cour_; to dodge the cannon-ball which had a mysterious habit of taking
advantage of the slope of the ground and bounding along at a prodigious
rate of speed straight for the sentry-box; to watch closely anyone who
inhabited the _cabinet d'aisance_, lest he should make use of it to vault
over the wall; to see that no one stood on the girders, for a similar
reason; to keep watch over anyone who entered the shed; to see that
everyone urinated properly against the wall in the general vicinity of
the cabinet; to protect the apple-trees into which well-aimed pieces of
wood and stone were continually flying and dislodging the sacred fruit;
to mind that no one entered or exited by the gate in the upper fence
without authority; to report any signs, words, tokens, or other
immoralities exchanged by prisoners with girls sitting in the windows of
the women's wing (it was from one of these windows that I had recently
received my salutation), also names of said girls, it being forbidden to
exhibit any part of the female person at a window while the males were on
promenade; to quell all fights and especially to prevent people from
using the wagon axle as a weapon of defense or offense; and last, to keep
an eye on the sweeper when he and his wheelbarrow made use of a secondary
gate situated in the fence at the further end, not far from the
sentry-box, to dump themselves.
Having acquainted me with the various _defendus_ which limited the
activities of a man on promenade, my friends proceeded to enliven the
otherwise somewhat tedious morning by shattering one after another all
rules and regulations. Fritz, having chinned himself fifteen times,
suddenly appeared astride of the bar, evoking a reprimand; Pompom bowled
the _planton_ with the cannon-ball, apologising in profuse and vile
French; Harree the Hollander tossed the wagon-axle lightly half the
length of the _cour_, missing The Bear by an inch; The Bear bided his
time and cleverly hurled a large stick into one of the holy trees,
bringing to the ground a withered apple for which at least twenty people
fought for several minutes; and so on. The most open gestures were
indulged in for the benefit of several girls who had braved the official
wrath and were enjoying the morning at their windows. The girders were
used as a race-track. The beams supporting the shed-roof were shinned.
The water-wagon was dislocated from its proper position. The cabinet and
urinal were misused. The gate was continually admitting and emitting
persons who said they were thirsty, and must get a drink at a tub of
water which stood around the corner. A letter was surreptitiously thrown
over the wall into the _cour des femmes_.
The _planton_ who suffered all these indignities was a solemn youth with
wise eyes situated very far apart in a mealy expressionless elipse of
face, to the lower end of which clung a piece of down, exactly like a
feather sticking to an egg. The rest of him was fairly normal with the
exception of his hands, which were not mates; the left being considerably
larger, and made of wood.
I was at first somewhat startled by this eccentricity; but soon learned
that with the exception of two or three, who formed the _Surveillant's_
permanent staff and of whom the beefy one was a shining example, all the
_plantons_ were supposed to be unhealthy; they were indeed the disabled
whom _le gouvernement francais_ sent from time to time to La Ferte and
similar institutions for a little outing, and as soon as they had
recovered their health under these salubrious influences they were
shipped back to do their bit for world-safety, democracy, freedom, etc.,
in the trenches. I also learned that, of all the ways of attaining
_cabinot_, by far the simplest was to apply to a _planton_, particularly
to a permanent _planton_, say the beefy one (who was reputed to be
peculiarly touchy on this point) the term _embusque_. This method never
failed. To its efficacy many of the men and more of the girls (by whom
the _plantons_, owing to their habit of taking advantage of the weaker
sex at every opportunity, were even more despised) attested by not
infrequent spasms of consumptive coughing, which could be plainly heard
from the further end of one _cour_ to the other.
In a little over two hours I learned an astonishing lot about La Ferte
itself: it was a co-educational receiving station whither were sent from
various parts of France (a) males suspected of espionage and (b) females
of a well-known type found in the zone of the armies. It was pointed out
to me that the task of finding such members of the human race was _pas
difficile:_ in the case of the men, any foreigner would do provided his
country was neutral (e.g. Holland); as for the girls, inasmuch as the
armies of the Allies were continually retreating, the _zone des armees_
(particularly in the case of Belgium) was always including new cities,
whose _petites femmes_ became automatically subject to arrest. It was not
to be supposed that all the women of La Ferte were _putains_: there were
a large number of respectable women, the wives of prisoners, who met
their husbands at specified times on the floor below the men's quarters,
whither man and woman were duly and separately conducted by _plantons_.
In this case no charges had been preferred against the women; they were
voluntary prisoners, who had preferred to freedom this living in
proximity to their husbands. Many of them had children; some babies. In
addition there were certain _femmes honnettes_ whose nationality, as in
the case of the men, had cost them their liberty; Marguerite the
washerwoman, for example, was a German.
La Ferte Mace was not properly speaking a prison, but a Porte or
Detention Camp: that is to say, persons sent to it were held for a
Commission, composed of an official, a lawyer, and a captain of
_gendarmes_, which inspected the Camp and passed upon each case in turn
for the purpose of determining the guiltiness of the suspected party. If
the latter were found guilty by the Commission, he or she was sent off to
a regular prison camp for the duration of the war; if not guilty, he or
she was (in theory) set free. The Commission came to La Ferte once every
three months. It should be added that there were prisoners who had passed
the Commission, two, three, four, and even five times, without any
appreciable result; there were _prisonieres_ who had remained in La Ferte
a year, and even eighteen months.
The authorities at La Ferte consisted of the _Directeur_, or general
overlord, the _Surveillant_, who had the _plantons_ (orderlies) under him
and was responsible to the _Directeur_ for the administration of the
camp, and the _Gestionnaire_ (who kept the accounts). As assistant, the
_Surveillant_ had a mail clerk who acted as translator on occasion. Twice
a week the camp was visited by a regular French army doctor (_medecin
major_) who was supposed to prescribe in severe cases and to give the
women venereal inspection at regular intervals. The daily routine of
attending to minor ailments and injuries was in the hands of Monsieur
Ree-shar (Richard), who knew probably less about medicine than any man
living and was an ordinary prisoner like all of us, but whose impeccable
conduct merited cosy quarters. A sweeper was appointed from time to time
by the _Surveillant_, acting for the _Directeur_, from the inhabitants of
La Ferte; as was also a cook's assistant. The regular cook was a fixture,
and a Boche like the other fixtures, Marguerite and Richard. This fact
might seem curious were it not that the manner, appearance and actions of
the _Directeur_ himself proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was all
which the term Boche could possibly imply.
"He's a son-of-a-bitch," B. said heartily. "They took me up to him when I
came two days ago. As soon as he saw me he bellowed: '_Imbecile et
inchretien!_'; then he called me a great lot of other things, including
Shame of my country, Traitor to the sacred cause of Liberty, Contemptible
coward and Vile sneaking spy. When he got all through I said 'I don't
understand French.' You should have seen him then."
Separation of the sexes was enforced, not, it is true, with success, but
with a commendable ferocity. The punishments for both men and girls were
dry bread and _cabinot_.
"What on earth is _cabinot?_" I demanded.
There were various _cabinots_: each sex had its regular _cabinot_, and
there were certain extra ones. B. knew all about them from Harree and
Pompom, who spent nearly all their time in the _cabinot_. They were rooms
about nine feet square and six feet high. There was no light and no
floor, and the ground (three were on the ground floor) was always wet and
often a good many inches under water. The occupant on entering was
searched for tobacco, deprived of his or her mattress and blanket, and
invited to sleep on the ground on some planks. One didn't need to write a
letter to a member of the opposite sex to get _cabinot_, or even to call
a _planton embusque_--there was a woman, a foreigner, who, instead of
sending a letter to her embassy through the bureau (where all letters
were read by the mail clerk to make sure that they said nothing
disagreeable about the authorities or conditions of La Ferte) tried to
smuggle it outside, and got twenty-eight days of _cabinot_. She had
previously written three times, handing the letters to the _Surveillant_,
as per regulations, and had received no reply. Fritz, who had no idea why
he was arrested and was crazy to get in touch with his embassy, had
likewise written several letters, taking the utmost care to state the
facts only and always handing them in; but he had never received a word
in return. The obvious inference was that letters from a foreigner to his
embassy were duly accepted by the _Surveillant_ (Warden), but rarely, if
ever, left La Ferte.
B. and I were conversing merrily apropos the God-sent miracle of our
escape from Vingt-et-Un, when a benign-faced personage of about fifty
with sparse greyish hair and a Benjamin Franklin expression appeared on
the other side of the fence, from the direction of the door through which
I had passed after bumping the beefy bull. "_Planton_" it cried heavily
to the wooden-handed one, "Two men to go get water." Harree and Pompom
were already at the gate with the archaic water-wagon, the former pushing
from behind and the latter in the shafts. The guardian of the _cour_
walked up and opened the gate for them, after ascertaining that another
_planton_ was waiting at the corner of the building to escort them on
their mission. A little way from the _cour_, the stone wall (which formed
one of its boundaries and which ran parallel to the other stone wall
dividing the two _cours_) met the prison building; and here was a huge
double door, twice padlocked, through which the waterseekers passed on to
the street. There was a sort of hydrant up the street a few hundred
yards, I was told. The cook (Benjamin F., that is) required from three to
six wagonfuls of water twice a day, and in reward for the labour involved
in its capture was in the habit of giving a cup of coffee to the captors.
I resolved that I would seek water at the earliest opportunity.
Harree and Pompom had completed their third and final trip and returned
from the kitchen, smacking their lips and wiping their mouths with the
backs of their hands. I was gazing airily into the muddy sky, when a roar
issued from the door-way:
"_Monter les hommes!_" or "Send the men up!"
It was the beefy-necked. We filed from the _cour_, through the door, past
a little window which I was told belonged to the kitchen, down the clammy
corridor, up the three flights of stairs, to the door of The Enormous
Room. Padlocks were unlocked, chains rattled, and the door thrown open.
We entered. The Enormous Room received us in silence. The door was
slammed and locked behind us by the _planton_, whom we could hear
descending the gnarled and filthy stairs.
In the course of a half-hour, which time, as I was informed, intervened
between the just-ended morning promenade and the noon meal which was the
next thing on the program, I gleaned considerable information concerning
the daily schedule of La Ferte. A typical day was divided by
planton-cries as follows:
"_Cafe_," "_Corvee d'eau_," "_Nettoyage de Chambre_," "_Monter les
Hommes_," "_A la soupe les hommes_."
The most terrible cry of all, and which was not included in the regular
program of planton-cries, consisted of the words:
"_Aux douches les hommes_"--when all, sick, dead and dying not excepted,
descended to the baths. Although _les douches_ came only once in 15 days,
such was the terror they inspired that it was necessary for the _planton_
to hunt under mattresses for people who would have preferred death
Upon remarking that _corvee d'eau_ must be excessively disagreeable, I
was informed that it had its bright side, viz., that in going to and from
the sewer one could easily exchange a furtive signal with the women who
always took pains to be at their windows at that moment. Influenced
perhaps by this, Harree and Pompom were in the habit of doing their
friends' _corvees_ for a consideration. The girls, I was further
instructed, had their _corvee_ (as well as their meals) just after the
men; and the miraculous stupidity of the _plantons_ had been known to
result in the coincidence of the two.
At this point somebody asked me how I had enjoyed my shower?
I was replying in terms of unmeasured opprobrium when I was interrupted
by that gruesome clanking and rattling which announced the opening of the
door. A moment later it was thrown wide, and the beefy-neck stood in the
doorway, a huge bunch of keys in his paw, and shouted:
"_A la soupe les hommes._"
The cry was lost in a tremendous confusion, a reckless
thither-and-hithering of humanity, everyone trying to be at the door,
spoon in hand, before his neighbour. B. said calmly, extracting his own
spoon from beneath his mattress on which we were seated: "They'll give
you yours downstairs and when you get it you want to hide it or it'll be
pinched"--and in company with Monsieur Bragard, who had refused the
morning promenade, and whose gentility would not permit him to hurry when
it was a question of such a low craving as hunger, we joined the dancing
roaring throng at the door. I was not too famished myself to be
unimpressed by the instantaneous change which had come over The Enormous
Room's occupants. Never did Circe herself cast upon men so bestial an
enchantment. Among these faces convulsed with utter animalism I scarcely
recognised my various acquaintances. The transformation produced by the
_planton's_ shout was not merely amazing; it was uncanny, and not a
little thrilling. These eyes bubbling with lust, obscene grins sprouting
from contorted lips, bodies unclenching and clenching in unctuous
gestures of complete savagery, convinced me by a certain insane beauty.
Before the arbiter of their destinies some thirty creatures, hideous and
authentic, poised, cohering in a sole chaos of desire; a fluent and
numerous cluster of vital inhumanity. As I contemplated this ferocious
and uncouth miracle, this beautiful manifestation of the sinister alchemy
of hunger, I felt that the last vestige of individualism was about
utterly to disappear, wholly abolished in a gambolling and wallowing
The beefy-neck bellowed:
"Are you all here?"
A shrill roar of language answered. He looked contemptuously around him,
upon the thirty clamouring faces each of which wanted to eat
him--puttees, revolver and all. Then he cried:
Squirming, jostling, fighting, roaring, we poured slowly through the
doorway. Ridiculously. Horribly. I felt like a glorious microbe in huge
absurd din irrevocably swathed. B. was beside me. A little ahead Monsieur
Auguste's voice protested. Count Bragard brought up the rear.
When we reached the corridor nearly all the breath was knocked out of me.
The corridor being wider than the stairs allowed me to inhale and look
around. B. was yelling in my ear:
"Look at the Hollanders and the Belgians! They're always ahead when it
comes to food!"
Sure enough: John the Bathman, Harree and Pompom were leading this
extraordinary procession. Fritz was right behind them, however, and
pressing the leaders hard. I heard Monsieur Auguste crying in his child's
"If every-body goes slow-er we will ar-rive soon-er. You mustn't act like
Then suddenly the roar ceased. The melee integrated. We were marching in
orderly ranks. B. said:
At the end of the corridor, opposite the kitchen window, there was a
flight of stairs. On the third stair from the bottom stood (teetering a
little slowly back and forth, his lean hands joined behind him and
twitching regularly, a kepi tilted forward on his cadaverous head so that
its visor almost hid the weak eyes sunkenly peering from under droopy
eyebrows, his pompous rooster-like body immaculately attired in a shiny
uniform, his puttees sleeked, his cross polished)--The Fencer. There was
a renovated look about him which made me laugh. Also his pose was
ludicrously suggestive of Napoleon reviewing the armies of France.
Our column's first rank moved by him. I expected it to continue ahead
through the door and into the open air, as I had myself done in going
from _les douches_ to _le cour;_ but it turned a sharp right and then
sharp left, and I perceived a short hall, almost hidden by the stairs. In
a moment I had passed The Fencer myself and entered the hall. In another
moment I was in a room, pretty nearly square, filled with rows of
pillars. On turning into the hall the column had come almost to a
standstill. I saw that the reason for this slowing-down lay in the fact
that on entering the room every man in turn passed a table and received a
piece of bread from the chef. When B. and I came opposite the table the
dispenser of bread smiled pleasantly and nodded to B., then selected a
large hunk and pushed it rapidly into B.'s hands with an air of doing
something which he shouldn't. B. introduced me, whereupon the smile and
selection was repeated.
"He thinks I'm a German," B. explained in a whisper, "and that you are a
German too." Then aloud, to the cook: "My friend here needs a spoon. He
just got here this morning and they haven't given him one."
The excellent person at the bread table hereupon said to me: "You shall
go to the window and say I tell you to ask for spoon and you will catch
one spoon"--and I broke through the waiting line, approached the
kitchen-window, and demanded of a roguish face within:
"A spoon, please."
The roguish face, which had been singing in a high faint voice to itself,
replied critically but not unkindly:
"You're a new one?"
I said that I was, that I had arrived late last night.
It disappeared, reappeared, and handed me a tin spoon and cup, saying:
"You haven't a cup?"--"No" I said.
"Here. Take this. Quick." Nodding in the direction of the Surveillant,
who was standing all this time on the stairs behind me.
I had expected from the cook's phrase that something would be thrown at
me which I should have to catch, and was accordingly somewhat relieved at
the true state of affairs. On re-entering the _salle a manger_ I was
greeted by many cries and wavings, and looking in their direction
perceived everybody uproariously seated at wooden benches which were
placed on either side of an enormous wooden table. There was a tiny gap
on one bench where a place had been saved for me by B., with the
assistance of Monsieur Auguste, Count Bragard, Harree and several other
fellow-convicts. In a moment I had straddled the bench and was occupying
the gap, spoon and cup in hand, and ready for anything.
The din was perfectly terrific. It had a minutely large quality. Here and
there, in a kind of sonal darkness, solid sincere unintelligible absurd
wisps of profanity heavily flickered. Optically the phenomenon was
equally remarkable: seated waggingly swaying corpselike figures,
swaggering, pounding with their little spoons, roaring, hoarse, unkempt.
Evidently Monsieur le Surveillant had been forgotten. All at once the
roar bulged unbearably. The roguish man, followed by the _chef_ himself,
entered with a suffering waddle, each of them bearing a huge bowl of
steaming something. At least six people immediately rose, gesturing and
imploring: "_Ici_"--"_Mais non, ici_"--"_Mettez par ici_"--
The bearers plumped their burdens carefully down, one at the head of the
table and one in the middle. The men opposite the bowls stood up. Every
man seized the empty plate in front of him and shoved it into his
neighbour's hand; the plates moved toward the bowls, were filled amid
uncouth protestations and accusations--"_Mettez plus que ca_"--"_C'est
pas juste, alors_"--"_Donnez-moi encore de pommes_"--"_Nom de Dieu,
il n'y a pas assez_"--"_Cochon, qu'est-ce qu'il veut?_"--"_Shut
up_"--"_Gott-ver-dummer_"--and returned one by one. As each man received
his own, he fell upon it with a sudden guzzle.
Eventually, in front of me, solemnly sat a faintly-smoking urine-coloured
circular broth, in which soggily hung half-suspended slabs of raw potato.
Following the example of my neighbours, I too addressed myself to _La
Soupe_. I found her luke-warm, completely flavourless. I examined the
hunk of bread. It was almost bluish in colour; in taste mouldy, slightly
sour. "If you crumb some into the soup," remarked B., who had been
studying my reactions from the corner of his eye, "they both taste
better." I tried the experiment. It was a complete success. At least one
felt as if one were getting nourishment. Between gulps I smelled the
bread furtively. It smelled rather much like an old attic in which kites
and other toys gradually are forgotten in a gentle darkness.
B. and I were finishing our soup together when behind and somewhat to the
left there came the noise of a lock being manipulated. I turned and saw
in one corner of the _salle a manger_ a little door, shaking
mysteriously. Finally it was thrown open, revealing a sort of minute bar
and a little closet filled with what appeared to be groceries and
tobacco; and behind the bar, standing in the closet, a husky,
competent-looking lady. "It's the canteen," B. said. We rose, spoon in
hand and breadhunk stuck on spoon, and made our way to the lady. I had,
naturally, no money; but B. reassured me that before the day was over I
should see the Gestionnaire and make arrangements for drawing on the
supply of ready cash which the _gendarmes_ who took me from Gre had
confided to The Surveillant's care; eventually I could also draw on my
account with Norton-Harjes in Paris; meantime he had _quelques sous_
which might well go into chocolate and cigarettes. The large lady had a
pleasant quietness about her, a sort of simplicity, which made me
extremely desirous of complying with B.'s suggestion. Incidentally I was
feeling somewhat uncertain in the region of the stomach, due to the
unique quality of the lunch which I had just enjoyed, and I brightened at
the thought of anything as solid as chocolate. Accordingly we purchased
(or rather B. did) a _paquet jaune_ and a cake of something which was not
Meunier. And the remaining _sous_ we squandered on a glass apiece of red
acrid _pinard_, gravely and with great happiness pledging the hostess of
the occasion and then each other.
With the exception of ourselves hardly anyone patronized the canteen,
noting which I felt somewhat conspicuous. When, however, Harree Pompom
and John the Bathman came rushing up and demanded cigarettes my fears
were dispelled. Moreover the _pinard_ was excellent.
"Come on! Arrange yourselves!" the bull-neck cried hoarsely as the five
of us were lighting up; and we joined the line of fellow-prisoners with
their breads and spoons, gaping, belching, trumpeting fraternally, by the
"_Tout le monde en haut!_" this _planton_ roared.
Slowly we filed through the tiny hall, past the stairs (empty now of
their Napoleonic burden), down the corridor, up the creaking gnarled damp
flights, and (after the inevitable pause in which the escort rattled
chains and locks) into The Enormous Room.
This would be about ten thirty.
Just what I tasted, did, smelled, saw, and heard, not to mention touched,
between ten thirty and the completion of the evening meal (otherwise the
four o'clock soup) I am quite at a loss to say. Whether it was that glass
of _pinard_ (plus, or rather times, the astonishing exhaustion bequeathed
me by my journey of the day before) which caused me to enter temporarily
the gates of forgetfulness, or whether the sheer excitement attendant
upon my ultra-novel surroundings proved too much for an indispensable
part of my so-called mind--I do not in the least know. I am fairly
certain that I went on afternoon promenade. After which I must surely
have mounted to await my supper in The Enormous Room. Whence (after the
due and proper interval) I doubtless descended to the clutches of _La
Soupe Extraordinaire_ ... yes, for I perfectly recall the cry which made
me suddenly to re-enter the dimension of distinctness ... and by Jove I
had just finished a glass of _pinard_ ... somebody must have treated me
... we were standing together, spoon in hand ... when we heard--
"_A la promenade_," ... we issued _en queue_, firmly grasping our spoons
and bread, through the dining-room door. Turning right we were emitted,
by the door opposite the kitchen, from the building itself into the open
air. A few steps and we passed through the little gate in the barbed wire
fence of the _cour_.
Greatly refreshed by my second introduction to the canteen, and with the
digestion of the somewhat extraordinary evening meal apparently assured,
I gazed almost intelligently around me. Count Bragard had declined the
evening promenade in favour of The Enormous Room, but I perceived in the
crowd the now familiar faces of the three Hollanders--John, Harree and
Pompom--likewise of The Bear, Monsieur Auguste, and Fritz. In the course
of the next hour I had become, if not personally, at least optically
acquainted with nearly a dozen others.
Somewhat overawed by the animals Harree and Pompom (but nevertheless
managing to overawe a goodly portion of his fellow-captives) an
extraordinary human being paced the _cour_. On gazing for the first time
directly at him I experienced a feeling of nausea. A figure inclined to
corpulence, dressed with care, remarkable only above the neck--and then
what a head! It was large, and had a copious mop of limp hair combed back
from the high forehead--hair of a disagreeable blond tint, dutch-cut
behind, falling over the pinkish soft neck almost to the shoulders. In
this pianist's or artist's hair, which shook en masse when the owner
walked, two large and outstanding and altogether brutal white ears tried
to hide themselves. The face, a cross between classic Greek and Jew, had
a Reynard expression, something distinctly wily and perfectly
disagreeable. An equally with the hair blond moustache--or rather
mustachios projectingly important--waved beneath the prominent nostrils,
and served to partially conceal the pallid mouth, weak and large, whose
lips assumed from time to time a smile which had something almost foetal
about it. Over the even weaker chin was disposed a blond goatee. The
cheeks were fatty. The continually perspiring forehead exhibited
innumerable pinkish pock-marks. In conversing with a companion this being
emitted a disgusting smoothness, his very gestures were oily like his
skin. He wore a pair of bloated wristless hands, the knuckles lost in
fat, with which he smoothed the air from time to time. He was speaking
low and effortless French, completely absorbed in the developing ideas
which issued fluently from his mustachios. About him there clung an aura
of cringing. His hair whiskers and neck looked as if they were trick neck
whiskers and hair, as if they might at any moment suddenly disintegrate,
as if the smoothness of his eloquence alone kept them in place.
We called him Judas.
Beside him, clumsily keeping the pace but not the step, was a tallish
effeminate person whose immaculate funereal suit hung loosely upon an
aged and hurrying anatomy. He wore a big black cap on top of his haggard
and remarkably clean-shaven face, the most prominent feature of which was
a red nose, which sniffed a little now and then as if its owner was
suffering from a severe cold. This person emanated age, neatness and
despair. Aside from the nose which compelled immediate attention, his
face consisted of a few large planes loosely juxtaposed and registering
pathos. His motions were without grace. He had a certain refinement. He
could not have been more than forty-five. There was worry on every inch
of him. Possibly he thought that he might die. B. said "He's a Belgian, a
friend of Count Bragard, his name is Monsieur Pet-airs." From time to
time Monsieur Pet-airs remarked something delicately and pettishly in a
gentle and weak voice. His adam's-apple, at such moments, jumped about in
a longish slack wrinkled skinny neck which was like the neck of a turkey.
To this turkey the approach of Thanksgiving inspired dread. From time to
time M. Pet-airs looked about him sidewise as if he expected to see a
hatchet. His hands were claws, kind, awkward and nervous. They twitched.
The bony and wrinkled things looked as if they would like to close
quickly upon a throat.
B. called my attention to a figure squatting in the middle of the _cour_
with his broad back against one of the more miserable trees. This figure
was clothed in a remarkably picturesque manner: it wore a dark
sombrero-like hat with a large drooping brim, a bright red gipsy shirt of
some remarkably fine material with huge sleeves loosely falling, and
baggy corduroy trousers whence escaped two brown, shapely, naked feet. On
moving a little I discovered a face--perhaps the handsomest face that I
have ever seen, of a gold brown color, framed in an amazingly large and
beautiful black beard. The features were finely formed and almost fluent,
the eyes soft and extraordinarily sensitive, the mouth delicate and firm
beneath a black moustache which fused with the silky and wonderful
darkness falling upon the breast. The face contained a beauty and dignity
which, as I first saw it, annihilated the surrounding tumult without an
effort. Around the carefully formed nostrils there was something almost
of contempt. The cheeks had known suns of which I might not think. The
feet had travelled nakedly in countries not easily imagined. Seated
gravely in the mud and noise of the _cour_, under the pitiful and
scraggly _pommier_ ... behind the eyes lived a world of complete
strangeness and silence. The composure of the body was graceful and
Jovelike. This being might have been a prophet come out of a country
nearer to the sun. Perhaps a god who had lost his road and allowed
himself to be taken prisoner by _le gouvernement francais_. At least a
prince of a dark and desirable country, a king over a gold-skinned people
who would return when he wished to his fountains and his houris. I
learned upon inquiry that he travelled in various countries with a horse
and cart and his wife and children, selling bright colours to the women
and men of these countries. As it turned out, he was one of the
Delectable Mountains; to discover which I had come a long and difficult
way. Wherefore I shall tell you no more about him for the present, except
that his name was Joseph Demestre.
We called him The Wanderer.
I was still wondering at my good luck in occupying the same miserable
yard with this exquisite personage when a hoarse, rather thick voice
shouted from the gate: "_L'americain!_"
It was a _planton_, in fact the chief _planton_ for whom all ordinary
_plantons_ had unutterable respect and whom all mere men unutterably
hated. It was the _planton_ into whom I had had the distinguished honour
of bumping shortly after my visit to _le bain_.
The Hollanders and Fritz were at the gate in a mob, all shouting "Which"
in four languages.
This _planton_ did not deign to notice them. He repeated roughly
"_L'americain._" Then, yielding a point to their frenzied entreaties: "Le
B. said to me "Probably he's going to take you to the Gestionnaire.
You're supposed to see him when you arrive. He's got your money and will
keep it for you, and give you an allowance twice a week. You can't draw
more than 20 francs. I'll hold your bread and spoon."
"Where the devil is the American?" cried the _planton_.
"Here I am."
I followed his back and rump and holster through the little gate in the
barbed wire fence and into the building, at which point he commanded
I asked "Where?"
"Straight ahead" he said angrily.
I proceeded. "Left!" he cried. I turned. A door confronted me.
"_Entrez_," he commanded. I did. An unremarkable looking gentleman in a
French uniform, sitting at a sort of table. "_Monsieur le medecin, le
nouveau._" The doctor got up. "Open your shirt." I did. "Take down your
pants." I did. "All right." Then, as the _planton_ was about to escort me
from the room: "English?" he asked with curiosity. "No" I said,
"American." "_Vraiment_"--he contemplated me with attention. "South
American are you?" "United States" I explained. "_Vraiment_"--he looked
curiously at me, not disagreeably in the least. "_Pourquoi vous etes
ici?_" "I don't know" I said smiling pleasantly, "except that my friend
wrote some letters which were intercepted by the French censor." "Ah," he
remarked. "_C'est tout._"
And I departed. "Proceed!" cried the Black Holster. I retraced my steps,
and was about to exit through the door leading to the _cour_, when "Stop!
_Nom de Dieu!_ Proceed!"
I asked "Where?" completely bewildered.
"Up," he said angrily.
I turned to the stairs on the left, and climbed.
"Not so fast there," he roared behind me.
I slowed up. We reached the landing. I was sure that the Gestionnaire was
a very fierce man--probably a lean slight person who would rush at me
from the nearest door saying "Hands up" in French, whatever that may be.
The door opposite me stood open. I looked in. There was the Surveillant
standing, hands behind back, approvingly regarding my progress. I was
asking myself, Should I bow? when a scurrying and a tittering made me
look left, along a dark and particularly dirty hall. Women's voices ... I
almost fell with surprise. Were not those shadows' faces peering a little
boldly at me from doors? How many girls were there--it sounded as if
there were a hundred--
"_Qu'est-ce que vous faites_," etc., and the _planton_ gave me a good
shove in the direction of another flight of stairs. I obligingly
ascended; thinking of the Surveillant as a spider, elegantly poised in
the centre of his nefarious web, waiting for a fly to make too many
At the top of this flight I was confronted by a second hall. A shut door
indicated the existence of a being directly over the Surveillant's holy
head. Upon this door, lest I should lose time in speculating, was in
ample letters inscribed:
I felt unutterably lost. I approached the door. I even started to push
"_Attends, Nom de Dieu._" The _planton_ gave me another shove, faced the
door, knocked twice, and cried in accents of profound respect: "Monsieur
le Gestionnaire"--after which he gazed at me with really supreme
contempt, his neat pig-like face becoming almost circular.
I said to myself: This Gestionnaire, whoever he is, must be a very
terrible person, a frightful person, a person utterly without mercy.
From within a heavy, stupid, pleasant voice lazily remarked:
The _planton_ threw the door open, stood stiffly on the threshold, and
gave me the look which _plantons_ give to eggs when _plantons_ are a
I crossed the threshold, trembling with (let us hope) anger.
Before me, seated at a table, was a very fat personage with a black skull
cap perched upon its head. Its face was possessed of an enormous nose, on
which pince-nez precariously roosted; otherwise the face was large,
whiskered, very German and had three chins. Extraordinary creature. Its
belly, as it sat, was slightly dented by the table-top, on which
table-top rested several enormous tomes similar to those employed by the
recording angel on the Day of Judgment, an inkstand or two, innumerable
pens and pencils, and some positively fatal looking papers. The person
was dressed in worthy and semi-dismal clothes amply cut to afford a
promenade for the big stomach. The coat was of that extremely thin black
material which occasionally is affected by clerks and dentists and more
often by librarians. If ever I looked upon an honest German jowl, or even
upon a caricature thereof, I looked upon one now. Such a round fat red
pleasant beer-drinking face as reminded me only and immediately of huge
meerschaum pipes, Deutsche Verein mottos, sudsy seidels of Wurtzburger,
and Jacob Wirth's (once upon a time) brachwurst. Such pinlike pink merry
eyes as made me think of Kris Kringle himself. Such extraordinarily huge
reddish hands as might have grasped six seidels together in the Deutsche
Kuechen on 13th street. I gasped with pleasurable relief.
Monsieur le Gestionnaire looked as if he was trying very hard, with the
aid of his beribboned glasses and librarian's jacket (not to mention a
very ponderous gold watch-chain and locket that were supported by his
copious equator) to appear possessed of the solemnity necessarily
emanating from his lofty and responsible office. This solemnity, however,
met its Waterloo in his frank and stupid eyes, not to say his trilogy of
cheerful chins--so much so that I felt like crying "Wie gehts!" and
cracking him on his huge back. Such an animal! A contented animal, a
bulbous animal; the only living hippopotamus in captivity, fresh from the
He contemplated me with a natural, under the circumstances, curiosity. He
even naively contemplated me. As if I were hay. My hay-coloured head
perhaps pleased him, as a hippopotamus. He would perhaps eat me. He
grunted, exposing tobacco-yellow tusks, and his tiny eyes twittered.
Finally he gradually uttered, with a thick accent, the following
extremely impressive dictum:
I felt much pleased, and said "_Oui, j'suis americain, Monsieur._"
He rolled half over backwards in his creaking chair with wonderment at
such an unexpected retort. He studied my face with a puzzled air,
appearing slightly embarrassed that before him should stand _l'americain_
and that _l'americain_ should admit it, and that it should all be so
wonderfully clear. I saw a second dictum, even more profound than the
first, ascending from his black vest. The chain and fob trembled with
anticipation. I was wholly fascinated. What vast blob of wisdom would
find its difficult way out of him? The bulbous lips wiggled in a pleasant
"_Voo parlez francais._"
This was delightful. The _planton_ behind me was obviously angered by the
congenial demeanour of Monsieur le Gestionnaire, and rasped with his boot
upon the threshold. The maps to my right and left, maps of France, maps
of the Mediterranean, of Europe, even, were abashed. A little anaemic and
humble biped whom I had not previously noted, as he stood in one corner
with a painfully deferential expression, looked all at once relieved. I
guessed, and correctly guessed, that this little thing was the translator
of La Ferte. His weak face wore glasses of the same type as the
hippopotamus', but without a huge black ribbon. I decided to give him a
tremor; and said to the hippo "_Un peu, Monsieur_," at which the little
thing looked sickly.
The hippopotamus benevolently remarked "_Voo parlez bien_," and his
glasses fell off. He turned to the watchful _planton_:
"_Voo poovez aller. Je vooz appelerai._"
The watchful _planton_ did a sort of salute and closed the door after
him. The skullcapped dignitary turned to his papers and began mouthing
them with his huge hands, grunting pleasantly. Finally he found one, and
"_De quelle endroit que vooz etes?_"
"_De Massachusetts_," said I.
He wheeled round and stared dumbly at the weak faced one, who looked at a
complete loss, but managed to stammer simperingly that it was a part of
the United States.
"UH." The hippopotamus said.
Then he remarked that I had been arrested, and I agreed that I had been
Then he said "Have you got any money?" and before I could answer
clambered heavily to his feet and, leaning over the table before which I
stood, punched me gently.
"Uh," said the hippopotamus, sat down, and put on his glasses.
"I have your money here," he said. "You are allowed to draw a little from
time to time. You may draw 20 francs, if you like. You may draw it twice
"I should like to draw 20 francs now" I said, "in order to buy something
at the canteen."
"You will give me a receipt," said the hippopotamus. "You want to draw 20
francs now, quite so." He began, puffing and grunting, to make
handwriting of a peculiarly large and somewhat loose variety.
The weak face now stepped forward, and asked me gently: "Hugh er a merry
can?"--so I carried on a brilliant conversation in pidgeon English about
my relatives and America until interrupted by
The hip had finished.
"Sign your name, here," he said, and I did. He looked about in one of the
tomes and checked something opposite my name, which I enjoyed seeing in
the list of inmates. It had been spelled, erased, and re-spelled several
Monsieur le Gestionnaire contemplated my signature. Then he looked up,
smiled and nodded recognition to someone behind me. I turned. There stood
(having long since noiselessly entered) The Fencer Himself, nervously
clasping and unclasping his hands behind his back and regarding me with
approval, or as a keeper regards some rare monkey newly forwarded from
its habitat by Hagenbeck.
The hippo pulled out a drawer. He found, after hunting, some notes. He
counted two off, licking his big thumb with a pompous gesture, and having
recounted them passed them heavily to me. I took them as a monkey takes a
"Do you wish?"--the Gestionnaire nodded toward me, addressing the Fencer.
"No, no" the Fencer said bowingly. "I have talked to him already."
"Call that _planton!_" cried Monsieur le Gestionnaire, to the little
thing. The little thing ran out dutifully and called in a weak voice
A gruff but respectful "_Oui_" boomed from below-stairs. In a moment the
_planton_ of _plantons_ had respectfully entered.
"The promenade being over, you can take him to the men's room," said the
Surveillant, as the Hippo (immensely relieved and rather proud of
himself) collapsed in his creaking chair.
Feeling like a suit-case in the clutches of a porter, I obediently
preceded my escort down two flights, first having bowed to the
hippopotamus and said "_Merci_"--to which courtesy the Hippo paid no
attention. As we went along the dank hall on the ground floor, I
regretted that no whispers and titters had greeted my descent. Probably
the furious _planton_ had seen to it that _les femmes_ kept their rooms
in silence. We ascended the three flights at the farther end of the
corridor, the _planton_ of all _plantons_ unlocked and unbolted the door
at the top landing, and I was swallowed by The Enormous Room.
I made for B., in my excitement allowing myself to wave the bank-notes.
Instantly a host had gathered at my side. On my way to my bed--a distance
of perhaps thirty feet--I was patted on the back by Harree, Pompom and
Bathhouse John, congratulated by Monsieur Auguste, and saluted by Fritz.
Arriving, I found myself the centre of a stupendous crowd. People who had
previously had nothing to say to me, who had even sneered at my unwashed
and unshaven exterior, now addressed me in terms of more than polite
interest. Judas himself stopped in a promenade of the room, eyed me a
moment, hastened smoothly to my vicinity, and made a few oily remarks of
a pleasant nature. Simultaneously by Monsieur Auguste Harree and Fritz I
was advised to hide my money and hide it well. There were people, you
know ... who didn't hesitate, you understand.... I understood, and to the
vast disappointment of the clamorous majority reduced my wealth to its
lowest terms and crammed it in my trousers, stuffing several trifles of a
bulky nature on top of it. Then I gazed quietly around with a William S.
Hart expression calculated to allay any undue excitement. One by one the
curious and enthusiastic faded from me, and I was left with the few whom
I already considered my friends; with which few B. and myself proceeded
to wile away the time remaining before _Lumieres Eteintes_.
Incidentally, I exchanged (in the course of the next two hours) a
considerable mass of two legged beings for a number of extremely
interesting individuals. Also, in that somewhat limited period of time, I
gained all sorts of highly enlightening information concerning the lives,
habits and likes of half a dozen of as fine companions as it has ever
been my luck to meet or, so far as I can now imagine, ever will be. In
prison one learns several million things--if one is _l'americain_ from
_Mass-a-chu-setts_. When the ominous and awe-inspiring rattle on the
further side of the locked door announced that the captors were come to
bid the captives good night, I was still in the midst of conversation and
had been around the world a number of times. At the clanking sound our
little circle centripetally disintegrated, as if by sheer magic; and I
was left somewhat dizzily to face a renewal of reality.
The door shot wide. The _planton's_ almost indistinguishable figure in
the doorway told me that the entire room was dark. I had not noticed the
darkness. Somebody had placed a candle (which I recalled having seen on a
table in the middle of the room when I looked up once or twice during the
conversation) on a little shelf hard by the cabinet. There had been men
playing at cards by this candle--now everybody was quietly reposing upon
the floor along three sides of The Enormous Room. The _planton_ entered.
Walked over to the light. Said something about everybody being present,
and was answered by a number of voices in a more or less profane
affirmative. Strutted to and fro, kicked the cabinet, flashed an electric
torch, and walked up the room examining each _paillasse_ to make sure it
had an occupant. Crossed the room at the upper end. Started down on my
side. The white circle was in my eyes. The _planton_ stopped. I stared
stupidly and wearily into the glare. The light moved all over me and my
bed. The rough voice behind the glare said:
"_Vous etes le nouveau?_"
Monsieur Auguste, from my left, said quietly:
"_Oui, c'est le nouveau._"
The holder of the torch grunted, and (after pausing a second at B.'s bed
to inspect a picture of perfect innocence) banged out through the door
which whanged to behind him and another _planton_, of whose presence I
had been hitherto unaware. A perfect symphony of "_Bonne nuits_" "_Dormez
biens_" and other affectionate admonitions greeted the exeunt of the
authorities. They were advised by various parts of the room in divers
tongues to dream of their wives, to be careful of themselves in bed, to
avoid catching cold, and to attend to a number of personal wants before
retiring. The symphony gradually collapsed, leaving me sitting in a state
of complete wonderment, dead tired and very happy, upon my _paillasse_.
"I think I'll turn in" I said to the neighbouring darkness.
"That's what I'm doing" B.'s voice said.
"By God" I said, "this is the finest place I've ever been in my life."
"It's the finest place in the world" said B.'s voice.
"Thank Heaven, we're out of A.'s way and the ---- _Section Sanitaire_," I
grunted as I placed my boots where a pillow might have been imagined.
"Amen" B.'s voice said.
"If you put your shoes un-der your mat-tress" Monsieur Auguste's voice
said, "you'll sleep well."
I thanked him for the suggestion, and did so. I reclined in an ecstasy of
happiness and weariness. There could be nothing better than this. To
"Got a _gottverdummer_ cigarette?" Harree's voice asked of Fritz.
"No bloody fear," Fritz's voice replied coolly.
Snores had already begun in various keys at various distances in various
directions. The candle flickered a little; as if darkness and itself were
struggling to the death, and darkness were winning.
"I'll get a chew from John" Harree's voice said.
Three or four _paillasses_ away, a subdued conversation was proceeding. I
found myself listening sleepily.
"_Et puis_," a voice said, "_je suis reforme...._"
A GROUP OF PORTRAITS
With the reader's permission I beg, at this point of my narrative, to
indulge in one or two extrinsic observations.
In the preceding pages I have described my Pilgrim's Progress from the
Slough of Despond, commonly known as Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un (then
located at Germaine) through the mysteries of Noyon, Gre and Paris to the
Porte de Triage de La Ferte Mace, Orne. With the end of my first day as a
certified inhabitant of the latter institution a definite progression is
brought to a close. Beginning with my second day at La Ferte a new period
opens. This period extends to the moment of my departure and includes the
discovery of The Delectable Mountains, two of which--The Wanderer and I
shall not say the other--have already been sighted. It is like a vast
grey box in which are laid helter-skelter a great many toys, each of
which is itself completely significant apart from the always unchanging
temporal dimension which merely contains it along with the rest. I make
this point clear for the benefit of any of my readers who have not had
the distinguished privilege of being in jail. To those who have been in
jail my meaning is at once apparent; particularly if they have had the
highly enlightening experience of being in jail with a perfectly
indefinite sentence. How, in such a case, could events occur and be
remembered otherwise than as individualities distinct from Time Itself?
Or, since one day and the next are the same to such a prisoner, where
does Time come in at all? Obviously, once the prisoner is habituated to
his environment, once he accepts the fact that speculation as to when he
will regain his liberty cannot possibly shorten the hours of his
incarceration and may very well drive him into a state of unhappiness
(not to say morbidity), events can no longer succeed each other: whatever
happens, while it may happen in connection with some other perfectly
distinct happenings, does not happen in a scale of temporal
priorities--each happening is self-sufficient, irrespective of minutes,
months and the other treasures of freedom.
It is for this reason that I do not purpose to inflict upon the reader a
diary of my alternative aliveness and non-existence at La Ferte--not
because such a diary would unutterably bore him, but because the diary or
time method is a technique which cannot possibly do justice to
timelessness. I shall (on the contrary) lift from their grey box at
random certain (to me) more or less astonishing toys; which may or may
not please the reader, but whose colours and shapes and textures are a
part of that actual Present--without future and past--whereof they alone
are cognizant who--so to speak--have submitted to an amputation of the
I have already stated that La Ferte was a Porte de Triage--that is to
say, a place where suspects of all varieties were herded by _le
gouvernement francais_ preparatory to their being judged as to their
guilt by a Commission. If the Commission found that they were wicked
persons or dangerous persons, or undesirable persons, or puzzling
persons, or persons in some way insusceptible of analysis, they were sent
from La Ferte to a "regular" prison, called Precigne, in the province of
Sarthe. About Precigne the most awful rumors were spread. It was
whispered that it had a huge moat about it, with an infinity of barbed
wire fences thirty-feet high, and lights trained on the walls all night
to discourage the escape of prisoners. Once in Precigne you were "in" for
good and all, _pour la duree de la guerre_, which _duree_ was a subject
of occasional and dismal speculation--occasional for reasons, as I have
mentioned, of mental health; dismal for unreasons of diet, privation,
filth, and other trifles. La Ferte was, then, a stepping stone either to
freedom or to Precigne. But the excellent and inimitable and altogether
benignant French Government was not satisfied with its own generosity in
presenting one merely with Precigne--beyond that lurked a _cauchemar_
called by the singularly poetic name: Isle de Groix. A man who went to
Isle de Groix was done.
As the Surveillant said to us all, leaning out of a littlish window, and
to me personally upon occasion--
"You are not prisoners. Oh, no. No indeed, I should say not. Prisoners
are not treated like this. You are lucky."
I had _de la chance_ all right, but that was something which the _pauvre_
M. Surveillant wot altogether not of. As for my fellow-prisoners, I am
sorry to say that he was--it seems to my humble personality--quite wrong.
For who was eligible to La Ferte? Anyone whom the police could find in
the lovely country of France (a) who was not guilty--of treason (b) who
could not prove that he was not guilty of treason. By treason I refer to
any little annoying habits of independent thought or action which _en
temps de guerre_ are put in a hole and covered over, with the somewhat
naive idea that from their cadavers violets will grow, whereof the
perfume will delight all good men and true and make such worthy citizens
forget their sorrows. Fort Leavenworth, for instance, emanates even now a
perfume which is utterly delightful to certain Americans. Just how many
La Fertes France boasted (and for all I know may still boast) God Himself
knows. At least, in that Republic, amnesty has been proclaimed, or so I
hear.--But to return to the Surveillants remark.
_J'avais de la chance._ Because I am by profession a painter and a
writer. Whereas my very good friends, all of them deeply suspicious
characters, most of them traitors, without exception lucky to have the
use of their cervical vertebrae, etc., etc., could (with a few
exceptions) write not a word and read not a word; neither could they
_faire la photographie_ as Monsieur Auguste chucklingly called it (at
which I blushed with pleasure): worst of all, the majority of these dark
criminals who had been caught in nefarious plots against the honour of
France were totally unable to speak French. Curious thing. Often I
pondered the unutterable and inextinguishable wisdom of the police,
who--undeterred by facts which would have deceived less astute
intelligences into thinking that these men were either too stupid or too
simple to be connoisseurs of the art of betrayal--swooped upon their
helpless prey with that indescribable courage which is the prerogative of
policemen the world over, and bundled it into the La Fertes of that
mighty nation upon some, at least, of whose public buildings it seems to
me that I remember reading:
And I wondered that France should have a use for Monsieur Auguste, who
had been arrested (because he was a Russian) when his fellow munition
workers struck and whose wife wanted him in Paris because she was hungry
and because their child was getting to look queer and white. Monsieur
Auguste, that desperate ruffian exactly five feet tall who--when he could
not keep from crying (one must think about one's wife or even one's child
once or twice, I merely presume, if one loves them--"_et ma femme est
tres gen-tille, elle est fran-caise et tres belle, tres, tres belle,
vraiment; elle n'est fas comme moi, un pet-it homme laide, ma femme est
grande et belle, elle sait bien lire et e-crire, vraiment; et notre fils
... vous dev-ez voir notre pet-it fils...._")--used to start up and cry
out, taking B. by one arm and me by the other,
"_Allons, mes amis! Chan-tons 'Quackquackquack_.'"
Whereupon we would join in the following song, which Monsieur Auguste had
taught us with great care, and whose renditions gave him unspeakable
"_Un canard, deployant chez elle
Il disait a sa canard fidele
Il disait (Quackquackquack)
Il faisait (Quackquackquack)
Quand_" (spelling mine)
"_finirons nos desseins,
I suppose I will always puzzle over the ecstasies of That Wonderful Duck.
And how Monsieur Auguste, the merest gnome of a man, would bend backwards
in absolute laughter at this song's spirited conclusion upon a note so
low as to wither us all.
Then, too, the Schoolmaster.
A little fragile old man. His trousers were terrifically too big for him.
When he walked (in an insecure and frightened way) his trousers did the
most preposterous wrinkles. If he leaned against a tree in the _cour_,
with a very old and also fragile pipe in his pocket--the stem (which
looked enormous in contrast to the owner) protruding therefrom--his
three-sizes too big collar would leap out so as to make his wizened neck
appear no thicker than the white necktie which flowed upon his two-sizes
too big shirt. He always wore a coat which reached below his knees, which
coat, with which knees, perhaps someone had once given him. It had huge
shoulders which sprouted, like wings, on either side of his elbows when
he sat in The Enormous Room quietly writing at a tiny three-legged table,
a very big pen walking away with his weak bony hand. His too big cap had
a little button on top which looked like the head of a nail; and
suggested that this old doll had once lost its poor grey head and had
been repaired by means of tacking its head upon its neck, where it should
be and properly belonged. Of what hideous crime was this being suspected?
By some mistake he had three moustaches, two of them being eyebrows. He
used to teach school in Alsace-Lorraine, and his sister is there. In
speaking to you his kind face is peacefully reduced to triangles. And his
tie buttons on every morning with a Bang! And off he goes; led about by
his celluloid collar, gently worried about himself, delicately worried
about the world. At eating time he looks sidelong as he stuffs soup into
stiff lips. There are two holes where cheeks might have been. Lessons
hide in his wrinkles. Bells ding in the oldness of eyes. Did he, by any
chance, tell the children that there are such monstrous things as peace
and good will ... a corrupter of youth, no doubt ... he is altogether
incapable of anger, wholly timid and tintinabulous. And he had always
wanted so much to know--if there were wild horses in America?
Yes, probably the Schoolmaster was a notorious seditionist. The all-wise
French Government has its ways, which like the ways of God are wonderful.
I had almost forgot The Bear--number two, not to be confused with the
seeker of cigarette-ends. A big, shaggy person, a farmer, talked about
"_mon petit jardin_," an anarchist, wrote practically all the time (to
the gentle annoyance of The Schoolmaster) at the queer-legged table;
wrote letters (which he read aloud with evident satisfaction to himself)
addressing "my confreres", stimulating them to even greater efforts,
telling them that the time was ripe, that the world consisted of
brothers, etc. I liked The Bear. He had a sincerity which, if somewhat
startlingly uncouth, was always definitely compelling. His French itself
was both uncouth and startling. I hardly think he was a dangerous bear.
Had I been the French Government I should have let him go berrying, as a
bear must and should, to his heart's content. Perhaps I liked him best
for his great awkward way of presenting an idea--he scooped it out of its
environment with a hearty paw in a way which would have delighted anyone
save _le gouvernement francais_. He had, I think,
VIVE LA LIBERTE
tattooed in blue and green on his big hairy chest. A fine bear. A bear
whom no twitchings at his muzzle nor any starvation nor yet any beating
could ever teach to dance ... but then, I am partial to bears. Of course
none of this bear's letters ever got posted--Le Directeur was not that
sort of person; nor did this bear ever expect that they would go
elsewhere than into the official waste-basket of La Ferte, which means
that he wrote because he liked to; which again means that he was
essentially an artist--for which reason I liked him more than a little.
He lumbered off one day--I hope to his brier-patch, and to his children,
and to his _confreres_, and to all things excellent and livable and
highly desirable to a bruin.
The Young Russian and The Barber escaped while I was enjoying my little
visit at Orne. The former was an immensely tall and very strong boy of
nineteen or under; who had come to our society by way of solitary
confinement, bread and water for months, and other reminders that to err
is human, etc. Unlike Harree, whom, if anything, he exceeded in strength,
he was very quiet. Everyone let him alone. I "caught water" in the town
with him several times and found him an excellent companion. He taught me
the Russian numerals up to ten, and was very kind to my struggles over 10
and 9. He picked up the cannon-ball one day and threw it so hard that the
wall separating the men's _cour_ from the _cour des femmes_ shook, and a
piece of stone fell off. At which the cannon-ball was taken away from us
(to the grief of its daily wielders, Harree and Fritz) by four perspiring
_plantons_, who almost died in the performance of their highly patriotic
duty. His friend, The Barber, had a little shelf in The Enormous Room,
all tricked out with an astonishing array of bottles, atomizers, tonics,
powders, scissors, razors and other deadly implements. It has always been
a _mystere_ to me that our captors permitted this array of obviously
dangerous weapons when we were searched almost weekly for knives. Had I
not been in the habit of using B.'s safety razor I should probably have
become better acquainted with The Barber. It was not his price, nor yet
his technique, but the fear of contamination which made me avoid these
instruments of hygiene. Not that I shaved to excess. On the contrary, the
Surveillant often, nay bi-weekly (so soon as I began drawing certain
francs from Norton Harjes) reasoned with me upon the subject of
appearance; saying that I was come of a good family, and I had enjoyed
(unlike my companions) an education, and that I should keep myself neat
and clean and be a shining example to the filthy and ignorant--adding
slyly that the "hospital" would be an awfully nice place for me and my
friend to live, and that there we could be by ourselves like gentlemen
and have our meals served in the room, avoiding the _salle a manger_;
moreover, the food would be what we liked, delicious food, especially
cooked ... all (quoth the Surveillant with the itching palm of a Grand
Central Porter awaiting his tip) for a mere trifle or so, which if I
liked I could pay him on the spot--whereat I scornfully smiled, being
inhibited by a somewhat selfish regard for my own welfare from kicking
him through the window. To The Barber's credit be it said: he never once
solicited my trade, although the Surveillant's "_Soi-meme_" (oneself)
lectures (as B. and I referred to them) were the delight of our numerous
friends and must, through them, have reached his alert ears. He was a
good-looking quiet man of perhaps thirty, with razor-keen eyes--and
that's about all I know of him except that one day The Young Russian and
The Barber, instead of passing from the _cour_ directly to the building,
made use of a little door in an angle between the stone wall and the
kitchen; and that to such good effect that we never saw them again. Nor
were the ever-watchful guardians of our safety, the lion-hearted
_plantons_, aware of what had occurred until several hours after; despite
the fact that a ten-foot wall had been scaled, some lesser obstructions
vanquished, and a run in the open made almost (one unpatriotically minded
might be tempted to say) before their very eyes. But then--who knows? May
not the French Government deliberately have allowed them to escape,
after--through its incomparable spy system--learning that The Barber and
his young friend were about to attempt the life of the Surveillant with
an atomizer brim-full of T.N.T.? Nothing could after all be more highly
probable. As a matter of fact a couple of extra-fine razors (presented by
the _Soi-meme_-minded Surveillant to the wily coiffeur in the interests
of public health) as well as a knife which belonged to the kitchen and
had been lent to The Barber for the purpose of peeling potatoes--he
having complained that the extraordinary safety-device with which, on
alternate days, we were ordinarily furnished for that purpose, was an
insult to himself and his profession--vanished into the rather thick air
of Orne along with The Barber _lui-meme_. I remember him perfectly in The
Enormous Room, cutting apples deliberately with his knife and sharing
them with the Young Russian. The night of the escape--in order to keep up
our morale--we were helpfully told that both refugees had been snitched
e'er they had got well without the limits of the town, and been remanded
to a punishment consisting among other things, in _travaux forces a
perpetuite--verbum sapientibus_, he that hath ears, etc. Also a nightly
inspection was instituted; consisting of our being counted thrice by a
_planton_, who then divided the total by three and vanished.
_Soi-meme_ reminds me of a pleasant spirit who graced our little company
with a good deal of wit and elegance. He was called by B. and myself,
after a somewhat exciting incident which I must not describe, but rather
outline, by the agreeable title of Meme le Balayeur. Only a few days
after my arrival the incident in question happened. It seems (I was in
_la cour_ promenading for the afternoon) that certain more virile
inhabitants of The Enormous Room, among them Harree and Pom Pom _bien
entendu_, declined to _se promener_ and kept their habitat. Now this was
in fulfilment of a little understanding with three or more girls--such as
Celina, Lily and Renee--who, having also declined the promenade, managed
in the course of the afternoon to escape from their quarters on the
second floor, rush down the hall and upstairs, and gain that landing on
which was the only and well-locked door to The Enormous Room. The next
act of this little comedy (or tragedy, as it proved for the participants,
who got _cabinot_ and _pain sec_--male and female alike--for numerous
days thereafter) might well be entitled "Love will find a way." Just how
the door was opened, the lock picked, etc., from the inside is (of
course) a considerable mystery to anyone possessing a limited
acquaintance with the art of burglary. Anyway it was accomplished, and
that in several fifths of a second. Now let the curtain fall, and the
reader be satisfied with the significant word "Asbestos," which is part
of all first-rate performances.
The Surveillant, I fear, distrusted his _balayeur_. _Balayeurs_ were
always being changed because _balayeurs_ were (in shameful contrast to
the _plantons_) invariably human beings. For this deplorable reason they
inevitably carried notes to and fro between _les hommes_ and _les
femmes_. Upon which ground the _balayeur_ in this case--a well-knit
keen-eyed agile man, with a sense of humour and sharp perception of men,
women and things in particular and in general--was called before the bar
of an impromptu court, held by M. le Surveillant in The Enormous Room
after the promenade. I shall not enter in detail into the nature of the
charges pressed in certain cases, but confine myself to quoting the close
of a peroration which would have done Demosthenes credit:
"_Meme le balayeur a tire un coup!_"
The individual in question mildly deprecated M. le Surveillant's opinion,
while the audience roared and rocked with laughter of a somewhat
ferocious sort. I have rarely seen the Surveillant so pleased with
himself as after producing this _bon mot_. Only fear of his superior, the
ogre-like Directeur, kept him from letting off entirely all concerned in
what after all (from the European point of view) was an essentially human
proceeding. As nobody could prove anything about Meme, he was not locked
up in a dungeon; but he lost his job of sweeper--which was quite as bad,
I am sure, from his point of view--and from that day became a common
inhabitant of The Enormous Room like any of the rest of us.
His successor, Garibaldi, was a corker.
How the Almighty French Government in its Almighty Wisdom ever found
Garibaldi a place among us is more than I understand or ever will. He was
a little tot in a faded blue-grey French uniform; and when he perspired
he pushed a _kepi_ up and back from his worried forehead which a lock of
heavy hair threateningly overhung. As I recollect Garibaldi's terribly
difficult, not to say complicated, lineage, his English mother had
presented him to his Italian father in the country of France. However
this trilogy may be, he had served at various times in the Italian,
French and English armies. As there was (unless we call Garibaldi
Italian, which he obviously was not) nary a subject of King Ponzi or
Carruso or whatever be his name residing at La Ferte Mace, Garibaldi was
in the habit of expressing himself--chiefly at the card table, be it
said--in a curious language which might have been mistaken for French. To
B. and me he spoke an equally curious language, but a perfectly
recognizable one, i.e., Cockney Whitechapel English. He showed us a
perfectly authentic mission-card which certified that his family had
received a pittance from some charitable organisation situated in the
Whitechapel neighbourhood, and that, moreover, they were in the habit of
receiving this pittance; and that, finally, their claim to such pittance
was amply justified by the poverty of their circumstances. Beyond this
valuable certificate, Garibaldi (which everyone called him) attained
great incoherence. He had been wronged. He was always being
misunderstood. His life had been a series of mysterious tribulations. I
for one have the merest idea that Garibaldi was arrested for the theft of
some peculiarly worthless trifle, and sent to the Limbo of La Ferte as a
penance. This merest idea is suggested by something which happened when
The Clever Man instituted a search for his missing knife--but I must
introduce The Clever Man to my reader before describing that rather
Conceive a tall, well-dressed, rather athletic, carefully kept, clean and
neat, intelligent, not for a moment despondent, altogether superior man,
fairly young (perhaps twenty-nine) and quite bald. He wins enough every
night at _banque_ to enable him to pay the less fortunate to perform his
_corvee d'eau_ for him. As a consequence he takes his vile coffee in bed
every morning, then smokes a cigarette or two lazily, then drops off for
a nap, and gets up about the middle of the morning promenade. Upon
arising he strops a razor of his own (nobody knows how he gets away with
a regular razor), carefully lathers his face and neck--while gazing into
a rather classy mirror which hangs night and day over his head, above a
little shelf on which he displays at such times a complete toilet
outfit--and proceeds to annihilate the inconsiderable growth of beard
which his mirror reveals to him. Having completed the annihilation, he
performs the most extensive ablutions per one of the three or four pails
which The Enormous Room boasts, which pail is by common consent dedicated
to his personal and exclusive use. All this time he has been singing
loudly and musically the following sumptuously imaginative ditty:
"mEEt me tonIght in DREAmland,
UNder the SIL-v'ry mOOn,
meet me in DREAmland,
sweet dreamy DREAmland--
there all my DRE-ams come trUE."
His English accent is excellent. He pronounces his native language, which