The Enormous Room
by E. E.
I. I BEGIN A
II. EN ROUTE
III. A PILGRIM'S
IV. LE NOUVEAU
V. A GROUP OF
VII. AN APPROACH
XI. JEAN LE
XII. THREE WISE
XIII. I SAY
GOOD-BYE TO LA
'FOR THIS MY SON WAS DEAD,
AND IS ALIVE AGAIN;
HE WAS LOST AND IS FOUND.'
He was lost by the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. He was officially
dead as a result of official misinformation.
He was entombed by the French Government.
It took the better part of three months to find him and bring him
back to life with the help of powerful and willing friends on both
sides of the Atlantic. The following documents tell the story.
1104 IRVING STREET,
December 8, 1917
President Woodrow Wilson,
It seems criminal to ask for a single moment of your time. But I am
strongly advised that it would be more criminal to delay any longer
calling to your attention a crime against American citizenship in which
the French Government has persisted for many weeks—in spite of
constant appeals made to the American Minister at Paris; and in spite
of subsequent action taken by the State Department at Washington, on
the initiative of my friend Hon. ———.
The victims are two American ambulance drivers,
Edward Estlin Cummings of Cambridge, Mass., and W. S. B.
More than two months ago these young men were arrested,
subjected to many indignities, dragged across France like criminals,
and closely confined in a Concentration Camp at La Ferté Macé; where
according to latest advices they still remain,—awaiting the final
action of the Minister of the Interior upon the findings of a
Commission which passed upon their cases as long ago as October 17.
Against Cummings both private and official advices from
Paris state that there is no charge whatever. He has been subjected to
this outrageous treatment solely because of his intimate friendship
with young B—-, whose sole crime is,—so far as can be
learned,—that certain letters to friends in America were
misinterpreted by an over-zealous French censor.
It only adds to the indignity and irony of the situation to say that
young Cummings is an enthusiastic lover of France, and so loyal to the
friends he has made among the French soldiers, that even while
suffering in health from his unjust confinement, be excuses the
ingratitude of the country he has risked his life to serve, by calling
attention to the atmosphere of intense suspicion and distrust that has
naturally resulted from the painful experience which France has had
with foreign emissaries.
assured, Mr. President, that I have waited long—it seems like
ages—and have exhausted all other available help before venturing to
1. After many
weeks of vain effort to secure effective action by the American
Ambassador at Paris, Richard Norton of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance
Corps, to which the boys belonged, was completely discouraged, and
advised me to seek help here.
2. The efforts of the State Department at Washington resulted as
i. A cable from
Paris saying there was no charge against Cummings and intimating that
he would speedily be released.
ii. A little later a second cable advising that Edward Estlin Cummings
had sailed on the Antilles and was reported lost.
iii. A week later a third cable correcting this cruel
error, and saying the Embassy was renewing efforts to locate
Cummings—apparently still ignorant even of the place of his
After such painful
and baffling experiences, I turn to you,—burdened though I know you
to be, in this world crisis, with the weightiest task ever laid upon
But I have another
reason for asking this favour. I do not speak for my son alone; or for
him and his friend alone. My son has a mother,—as brave and patriotic
as any mother who ever dedicated an only son to a great cause. The
mothers of our boys in France have rights as well as the boys
My boy's mother had
a right to be protected from the weeks of horrible anxiety and suspense
caused by the inexplicable arrest and imprisonment of her son. My boy's
mother had a right to be spared the supreme agony caused by a
blundering cable from Paris saying that he had been drowned by a
submarine. (An error which Mr. Norton subsequently cabled that he had
discovered six weeks before.) My boy's mother and all American mothers
have a right to be protected against all needless anxiety and sorrow.
Pardon me, Mr. President, but if I were president and
your son were suffering such prolonged injustice at the hands of
France; and your son's mother had been needlessly kept in Hell as many
weeks as my boy's mother has,—I would do something to make American
citizenship as sacred in the eyes of Frenchmen as Roman citizenship was
in the eyes of the ancient world. Then it was enough to ask the
question, 'Is it lawful to scourge a man that is a Roman, and
uncondemned?' Now, in France, it seems lawful to treat like a condemned
criminal a man that is an American, uncondemned and admittedly innocent!
This letter was received at the White House. 'Whether, it was
received with sympathy or with silent disapproval, is still a mystery.
A Washington official, a friend in need and a friend indeed in these
trying experiences, took the precaution to have it delivered by
messenger. Otherwise, fear that it had been 'lost in the mail' would
have added another twinge of uncertainty to the prolonged and exquisite
tortures inflicted upon parents by alternations of misinformation and
official silence. Doubtless the official stethoscope was on the heart
of the world just then; and perhaps it was too much to expect that even
a post-card would be wasted on private heart-aches.
In any event this letter told where to look for the missing
boys,—something the French Government either could not or would not
disclose, in spite of constant pressure by the American Embassy at
Paris and constant efforts by my friend Richard Norton, who was head of
the Norton-Harjes Ambulance organization from which they had been
Release soon followed, as narrated in the following letter to Major
— of the Staff of the judge Advocate General in Paris.
February 20, 1921.
MY DEAR MR.——
Your letter of January 30th, which I had been waiting for with great
interest ever since I received your cable, arrived this morning. My son
arrived in New York on January 1st. He was in bad shape physically as a
result of his imprisonment: very much under weight, suffering from a
bad skin infection which he had acquired at the concentration camp.
However, in view of the extraordinary facilities which the detention
camp offered for acquiring dangerous diseases, he is certainly to be
congratulated on having escaped with one of the least harmful. The
medical treatment at the camp was quite in keeping with the general
standards of sanitation there; with the result that it was not until he
began to receive competent surgical treatment after his release and on
board ship that there was much chance of improvement. A month of
competent medical treatment here seems to have got rid of this painful
reminder of official hospitality. He is, at present, visiting friends
in New York. If he were here, I am sure he would join with me and with
his mother in thanking you for the interest you have taken and the
efforts you have made.
B.. is, I am happy to say, expected in New York this week by the S.S.
Niagara. News of his release and subsequently of his departure came by
cable. What you say about the nervous strain under which he was living,
as an explanation of the letters to which the authorities objected, is
entirely borne out by first-hand information. The kind of badgering
which the youth received was enough to upset a less sensitive
temperament. It speaks volumes for the character of his environment
that such treatment aroused the resentment of only one of his
companions,, and that even this manifestation of normal human sympathy
was regarded as 'suspicious.' If you are right in characterizing
B—-'s condition as more or less hysterical, what shall we say of the
conditions which made possible the treatment which he and his friend
received? I am glad B——— wrote the very sensible and manly letter to
the Embassy, which you mention.
After I have had an opportunity to converse with him, I shall be in
better position to reach a conclusion in regard to certain matters
about which I will not now express an opinion.
I would only add that I do not in the least share your complacency in
regard to the treatment which my son received. The very fact that, as
you say, no charges were made and that he was detained on suspicion for
many weeks after the Commission passed on his case and reported to the
Minister of the Interior that he ought to be released, leads me to a
conclusion exactly opposite to that which you express. It seems to me
impossible to believe that any well-ordered Government would fail to
acknowledge such action to have been unreasonable. Moreover, 'detention
on suspicion' was a small part of what actually took place. To take a
single illustration, you will recall that after many weeks' persistent
effort to secure information, the Embassy was still kept so much in the
dark about the facts, that it cabled the report that my son had
embarked on The Antilles and was reported lost. And when convinced of
that error, the Embassy cabled that it was renewing efforts to locate
my son. Up to that moment, it would appear that the authorities had not
even condescended to tell the United States Embassy where this innocent
American citizen was confined; so that a mistaken report of his death
was regarded as an adequate explanation of his disappearance. If I had
accepted this report and taken no further action, it is by no means
certain that he would not be dead by this time.
I am free to say, that in my opinion no self-respecting Government
could allow one of its own citizens, against whom there has been no
accusation brought, to be subjected to such prolonged indignities and
injuries by a friendly Government without vigorous remonstrance. I
regard it as a patriotic duty, as well as a matter of personal
self-respect, to do what I can to see. that such remonstrance is made.
I still think too highly both of my own Government and of the
Government of France to believe that such an untoward incident will
fail to receive the serious attention it deserves. If I am wrong, and
American citizens must expect to suffer such indignities and injuries
at the hands of other Governments without any effort at remonstrance
and redress by their own Government, I believe the public ought to know
the humiliating truth. It will make interesting reading. It remains for
my son to determine what action he will take.
I am glad to know your son is returning. I am looking forward with
great pleasure to conversing with him.
I cannot adequately express my gratitude to you and to other friends
for the sympathy and assistance I have received. If any expenses have
been incurred on my behalf or on behalf of my son, I beg you to give me
the pleasure of reimbursing you. At best, I must always remain your
With best wishes,
I yield to no one in enthusiasm for the cause of France. Her cause
was our cause and the cause of civilization.; and the tragedy is that
it took us so long to find it out. I would gladly have risked my life
for her, as my son risked his and would have risked it again had not
the departure of his regiment overseas been stopped by the Armistice.
France was beset with enemies within as well as without. Some of the
'suspects' were members of her official household. Her Minister of
Interior was thrown into prison. She was distracted with fear. Her
existence was at stake. Under such circumstances excesses were sure to
be committed. But it is precisely at such times that American citizens
most need and are most entitled to the protection of their own
I. I BEGIN A PILGRIMAGE
'WE had succeeded, my friend B. and I, in dispensing with almost
three of our six months' engagement as Conducteurs Volontaires,
Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un,. Ambulance Norton Harjes, Croix Rouge
Américaine, and at the Moment which subsequent experience served to
capitalize had just finished the unlovely job of cleaning and greasing (nettoyer
is the proper word) the own private flivver of the
chef de section,
a gentleman by the convenient name of Mr. A. To
borrow a characteristic cadence from Our Great President: the lively
satisfaction which we might be suspected of having derived from the
accomplishment of a task so important in the saving of civilization
from the clutches of Prussian tyranny was in some degree inhibited,
unhappily, by a complete absence of cordial relations between the man
whom fate had placed over us and ourselves. Or, to use the vulgar
American idiom, B. and I and Mr. A. didn't get on well. We were in
fundamental disagreement as to the attitude which we, Americans, should
uphold toward the poilus in whose behalf we had volunteered assistance,
Mr. A. maintaining 'you boys want to keep away from those dirty
Frenchmen' and 'we're here to show those bastards how they do things in
America,' to which we answered by seizing every opportunity for
fraternization. Inasmuch as eight dirty Frenchmen were attached to the
section in various capacities (cook, provisioner, chauffeur,
mechanician, etc.), and the section itself was affiliated with a branch
of the French army, fraternization was easy. Now when he saw that we
had not the slightest intention of adopting his ideals, Mr. A.
(together with the sous-lieutenant who acted as his
translator—for the chef's knowledge of the French language,
obtained during several years' heroic service, consisted for the most
part in 'Sar var,' 'Sar marche,' 'Deet donk moan vieux') confined his efforts to denying us the privilege of acting as
on the ground that our personal appearance was a
disgrace to the section. In this, I am bound to say, Mr. A. was but
sustaining the tradition conceived originally by his predecessor, a Mr.
P., a Harvard man, who until his departure from Vingt-et-Un succeeded in making life absolutely miserable for B. and myself. Before
leaving this painful subject I beg to state that, at least as far as I
was concerned, the tradition had a firm foundation in my own
predisposition for uncouthness plus what Le Matin (if we
remember correctly) cleverly nicknamed La Boue Héroïque.
Having accomplished the
nettoyage (at which we were by this
time adepts, thanks to Mr. A.'s habit of detailing us to wash any car
which its driver and aide might consider too dirty a task for
their own hands) we proceeded in search of a little water for personal
use. B. speedily finished his ablutions. I was strolling carelessly and
solo from the cook-wagon toward one of the two tents—which
protestingly housed some forty huddling Americans by night—holding in
my hand an historic morceau de chocolat, when a spic not to say
span gentleman in a suspiciously quiet French uniform allowed himself
to be driven up to the bureau by two neat soldiers with tin
derbies, in a Renault whose painful cleanliness shamed my recent
efforts. This must be a general at least, I thought, regretting the
extremely undress character of my uniform, which uniform consisted of
overalls and a cigarette.
Having furtively watched the gentleman alight and receive a
ceremonious welcome from the chef and the aforesaid French
lieutenant who accompanied the section for translatory reasons, I
hastily betook myself to one of the tents, where I found B. engaged in
dragging all his belongings into a central pile of frightening
proportions. He was surrounded by a group of fellow-heroes who hailed
my coming with considerable enthusiasm. 'Your bunky's leaving,' said
somebody. 'Going to Paris,' volunteered a man, who had been trying for
three months to get there. 'Prison, you mean,' remarked a confirmed
optimist whose disposition had felt the effects of the French climate.
Albeit confused by the eloquence of B.'s unalterable silence, I
immediately associated his present predicament with the advent of the
mysterious stranger, and forthwith dashed forth bent on demanding from
one of the tin-derbies the high identity and sacred mission of this
personage. I knew that with the exception of ourselves every one in the
section bad been given his permission de sept jours—even two
men who had arrived later than we and whose turn should subsequently
have come after ours. I also knew that at the headquarters of the
Ambulance, 7 rue François premier, se trouvait Monsieur Norton,
thesupreme head of the Norton Harjes fraternity, who had known my
father in other days. Putting two and two together I decided that this
potentate had sent an emissary to Mr. A. to demand an explanation of
the various and sundry insults and indignities to which I and my friend
had been subjected, and more particularly to secure our long-delayed per-mission.
Accordingly I was in high spirits as I rushed toward
I didn't have to go far. The mysterious one, in conversation with
monsieur le sous-lieutenant,
met me halfway. I caught the words:
'And Cummings [the first and last time that my name was correctly
pronounced by a Frenchman], where is he?'
'Present,' I said, giving a salute to which neither of them paid the
'Ah yes,' impenetrably remarked the mysterious one in positively
sanitary English. 'You shall put all your baggage in the car, at
once'—then, to tin-derby-the-first, who appeared in an occult manner
at his master's elbow'Allez avec lui, chercher ses affaires, de
were mostly in the vicinity of the cuisine, where
lodged the cuisinier, mécanicien, menuisier, etc, who had made
room for me (some ten days since) on their own initiative, thus saving
me the humiliation of sleeping with nineteen Americans in a tent which
was always two-thirds full of mud. Thither I led the tin-derby, who
scrutinized everything with surprising interest. I threw mes
affaires hastily together (including some minor accessories which I
was going to leave behind; but which the t-d bade me include) and
emerged with a duffle-bag under one arm and a bed-roll under the other,
to encounter my excellent friends the dirty Frenchmen aforesaid. They
all popped out together from one door, looking rather astonished.
Something by way of explanation as well as farewell was most certainly
required, so I made a speech in my best French:
'Gentlemen, friends, comrades—I am going away immediately and
shall be guillotined to-morrow,'
—'Oh hardly guillotined I should say,' remarked t-d, in a voice
which froze my marrow— despite my high spirits; while the cook and
carpenter gaped audibly and the mechanician clutched a hopelessly
smashed carburetter for support.
One of the section's
voitures, a F.I.A.T., was standing
ready. General Nemo sternly forbade me to approach the Renault (in which B.'s baggage was already deposited) and waved me into the F.I.A.T.
bed, bed-roll and all; whereupon t-d leaped in and seated himself
opposite me in a position of perfect unrelaxation which, despite my
aforesaid exultation at quitting the section in general and Mr. A. in
particular, impressed me as being almost menacing. Through the front
window I saw my friend drive away with t-d number 2 and Nemo; then,
having waved hasty farewell to all les Américains that I
knew—3 in number—and having exchanged affectionate greetings with
Mr. A. (who admitted he was very sorry indeed to lose us), I
experienced the jolt of the clutch—and we were off in pursuit.
'Whatever may have been the forebodings inspired by t-d number 1's
attitude, they were completely annihilated by the thrilling joy which I
experienced on losing sight of the accursed section and its asinine
inhabitants—by the indisputable and authentic thrill of going
somewhere and nowhere under the miraculous auspices of some one and no
one—of being yanked from the putrescent banalities of an official
non-existence into a high and clear adventure, by a deus ex machina in a grey-blue uniform and a couple of tin-derbies. I whistled and sang
and cried to my vis-à-vis: 'By the way, who is yonder distinguished
gentleman who has been so good as to take my friend and me on this
little promenade?'—to which, between lurches of the groaning
F.I.A.T., t-d replied awesomely, clutching at the window for the
benefit of his equilibrium: 'Monsieur le Ministre de Sûreté de Noyon.'
Not in the least realizing what this might mean, I grinned. A
responsive grin, visiting informally the tired cheeks of my confrère,
ended by frankly connecting his worthy and enormous ears which were
squeezed into oblivion by the oversize casque. My eyes, jumping from
those cars, lit on that helmet and noticed for the first time an
emblem, a sort of flowering little explosion, or hair-switch rampant.
It seemed to me very jovial and a little absurd.
'We're on our way to Noyon, then?'
T-d shrugged his shoulders.
Here the driver's hat blew off. I beard him swear, and saw the hat
sailing in our wake. I jumped to my feet as the F.I.A.T. came to a
sudden stop, and started for the ground—then checked my flight in
mid-air and landed on the seat, completely astonished. T-d's revolver,
which had hopped from its holster at my first move, slid back into its
nest. The owner of the revolver was muttering something rather
disagreeable. The driver (being an American of Vingt-et-Un) was
backing up instead of retrieving his cap in person. My mind felt as if
it had been thrown suddenly from fourth into reverse. I pondered and
On again—faster, to make up for lost time. On the correct
assumption that t-d does not understand English, the driver passes the
time of day through the minute window:
'For Christ's sake, Cummings, what's up?'
'You got me,' I said, laughing at the delicate
naïveté of the
'Did y' do something to get pinched?'
'Probably,' I answered importantly and vaguely, feeling a new
'Well, if you didn't, maybe B—- did.'
"Maybe,' I countered, trying not to appear enthusiastic. As a matter
of fact I was never so excited and proud. I was, to be sure, a
criminal! Well, well, thank God that settled one question for good and
all—no more section sanitaire for me! No more Mr. A. and his
daily lectures on cleanliness, deportment, etc. In spite of myself I
started to sing. The driver interrupted:
'I heard you asking the tin lid something in French. Whadhesay?'
'Said that gink in the Renault is the head cop of Noyon,' I answered
'GOOD-NIGHT. Maybe we'd better ring off, or you'll get in wrong
with'—he indicated t-d with a wave of his head that communicated
itself to the car in a magnificent skid; and t-d's derby rang out as
the skid pitched t-d the length of the F.I.A.T.
'You rang the bell then,' I commended-then to t-d: 'Nice car for the
wounded to ride in,' I politely observed. T-d answered nothing....
'We drive straight up to something which looks unpleasantly like a
feudal dungeon. The driver is now told to be somewhere at a certain
time, and meanwhile to eat with the Head Cop, who may be found just
around the corner—(I am doing the translating for —and, oh yes; it
seems that the Head Cop has particularly requested the pleasure of this
distinguished American's company at déjeuner.
'Does he mean me?' the driver asked innocently.
'Sure,' I told him.
Nothing is said of B. or me.
Now, cautiously, t-d first and I a slow next, we descend. The
F.I.A.T. rumbles off, with the distinguished one's backward-glaring
head poked out a yard more or less, and that distinguished face so
completely surrendered to mystification as to cause a large laugh on my
'Vous avez faim?'
It was the erstwhile-ferocious speaking. A criminal, I remembered,
is somebody against whom everything he says and does is very cleverly
made use of. After weighing the matter in my mind for some moments I
decided at all cost to tell the truth, and replied:
'I could eat an elephant.'
Hereupon t-d led me to the Kitchen Itself, set me to eat upon a
stool, and admonished the cook in a fierce voice:
'Give this great criminal something to eat in the name of the French
And for the first time in three months I tasted Food.
T-d seated himself beside me, opened a huge jack-knife, and fell to,
after first removing his tin-derby and loosening his belt.
One of the pleasantest memories connected with that irrevocable meal
is of a large, gentle, strong woman who entered in a hurry, and seeing
me cried out:
'What is it?'
'It's an American, my mother,' t-d answered through fried potatoes.
'Pourquoi qu'il est ic
i?' The woman touched me on the shoulder, and satisfied herself
that I was real.
'The good God is doubtless acquainted with the explanation,' said
t-d pleasantly. 'Not myself being the—'
'Ah, mon pauvre,'
said this very beautiful sort of woman.
'You are going to be a prisoner here. Every one of the prisoners has a marraine,
do you understand? I am their
marraine. I love
them and look after them. Well, listen: I will be your marraine, too.'
I bowed, and looked around for something to pledge her in. T-d was
watching. My eyes fell on a huge glass of red pinard. 'Yes,
drink,' said my captor, with a smile. I raised my huge glass.
'A la santé de ma marraine charmante.'
—This deed of gallantry quite won the cook (a smallish, agile
Frenchman), who shovelled several helps of potatoes on my already empty
plate. The tin-derby approved also: 'That's right, eat, drink, you'll
need it later perhaps.' And his knife guillotined another delicious
hunk of white bread.
At last, sated with luxuries, I bade adieu to my
allowed t-d to conduct me (I going first, as always) upstairs and into
a little den whose interior boasted two mattresses, a man sitting at
the table, and a newspaper in the hands of the man.
'Cest un Américain,'
t-d said by way of introduction. The newspaper detached itself from
the man, who said: 'He's welcome indeed: make yourself at home, Mr.
American'—and bowed himself out. My captor immediately collapsed on
I asked permission to do the same on the other, which favour was
sleepily granted. With half-shut eyes my Ego lay and pondered: the
delicious meal it had just enjoyed; what was to come; the joys of being
a great criminal... then, being not at all inclined to sleep, I read Le Petit Parisien
quite through, even to
Les Voies Urinaires.
'Which reminded me and I woke up t-d and asked: 'May I visit the
'Downstairs,' he replied fuzzily, and readjusted his slumbers.
There was no one moving about in the little court. I lingered
somewhat on the way upstairs. The stairs were abnormally dirty. When I
re-entered, t-d was roaring to himself. I read the journal through
again. It must be about three o'clock.
Suddenly t-d woke up, straightened and buckled his personality, and
murmured, 'It's time, come on.'
Le bureau de
Monsieur de Ministre was just around the corner, as it proved.
Before the door stood the patient F.I.A.T. It was ceremoniously
informed by t-d that we would wait on the steps.
Well! Did I know any more?—the American driver wanted to know.
Having proved to my own satisfaction that my fingers could still
roll a pretty good cigarette, I answered: 'No,' between puffs.
The American drew nearer and whispered spectacularly: 'Your friend
is upstairs. I think they're examining him.' T-d got this; and though
his rehabilitated dignity had accepted the 'makin's' from its prisoner,
it became immediately incensed:
'That's enough,' he said sternly.
And dragged me
tout-à-coup upstairs, where I met B. and his
t-d coming out of the bureau door. B. looked peculiarly
cheerful. 'I think we're going to prison all right,' he assured me.
Braced by this news, poked from behind by my t-d, and waved on from
before by M. le Ministre himself, I floated vaguely into a very washed,
neat, business-like and altogether American room of modest proportions,
whose door was immediately shut and guarded on the inside by my escort.
Monsieur le Ministre said:
'Lift your arms.'
Then he went through my pockets. He found cigarettes, pencils, a
jack-knife, and several francs. He laid his treasures on a clean table
and said: 'You are not allowed to keep these. I shall be responsible.'
Then he looked me coldly in the eye and asked if I had anything else.
I told him that I believed I had a handkerchief.
He asked me: 'Have you anything in your shoes?'
'My feet,' I said, gently.
'Come this way,' he said frigidly, opening a door which I had not
remarked. I bowed in acknowledgment of the courtesy, and entered room
I looked into six eyes which sat at a desk.
Two belonged to a lawyerish person in civilian clothes, with a bored
expression, plus a moustache of dreamy proportions with which the owner
constantly imitated a gentleman ringing for a drink. Two appertained to
a splendid old dotard (a face all ski-jumps and toboggan slides), on
whose protruding chest the rosette of the Legion pompously squatted.
Numbers five and six had reference to Monsieur, who had seated himself
before I had time to focus my slightly bewildered eyes.
Monsieur spoke sanitary English, as I have said.
'What is your name'—'Edward E. Cummings.'—'Your
second name?'—E-s-t-l-i-n,' I spelled it for him.—'How do you say
that?'—I didn't understand.—'How do you say your name?'—'Oh,' I
said; and pronounced it. He explained in French to the moustache that
my first name was Edouard, my second 'A-s-tay-l-ee-n,' and my third
Say-u-deux m-ee-n-zhay-s'—and the moustache wrote it all down.
Monsieur then turned to me once more:
'You are Irish?'—'No,' I said, 'American.'—'You are Irish by
family?'—'No, Scotch.'—'You are sure that there was never an
Irishman in your parents?'—'So far as I know,' I said, 'there never
was an Irishman there.'—'Perhaps a hundred years back?' he
insisted.—'Not a chance,' I said decisively. But Monsieur was not to
be denied: 'Your name it is Irish?'—'Cummings is a very old Scotch
name,' I told him fluently; 'it used to be Comyn. A Scotchman named The
Red Comyn was killed by Robert Bruce in a church. He was my ancestor
and a very well-known man.'—'But your second name, where have you got
that?'—'From an Englishman, a friend of my father.' This statement
seemed to produce a very favourable impression in the case of the
rosette, who murmured: 'Un ami de son père, un anglais, bon!' several times. Monsieur, quite evidently disappointed, told the
moustache in French to write down that I denied my Irish parentage;
which the moustache did.
'What does your father in America?'—'He is a minister of the
Gospel,' I answered. 'Which church?'—'Unitarian.' This puzzled him.
After a moment he had an inspiration: 'That is the same as a Free
Thinker?'—I explained in French that it wasn't and that mon père
was a holy man. At last Monsieur told the moustache to write,
Protestant; and the moustache obediently did so.
From this point our conversation was carried on in French, somewhat
to the chagrin of Monsieur, but to the joy of the rosette and with the
approval of the moustache. In answer to questions, I informed them that
I was a student for five years at Harvard (expressing great surprise
that they had never heard of Harvard), that I had come to New York and
studied painting, that I had enlisted in New York as conducteur
volontaire, embarking for France shortly after, about the middle of
Monsieur asked: 'You met B—- on the
I said I
Monsieur glanced significantly around. The rosette nodded a number
of times. The moustache rang.
I understood that these kind people were planning to make me out the
innocent victim of a wily villain, and could not forbear a smile. C'est rigolo, I said to myself; they'll have a great time doing it.
'You and your friend were together in Paris?' I said 'Yes.' 'How
long?' 'A month, while we were waiting for our uniforms.'
A significant look by Monsieur, which is echoed by his confrères.
Leaning forward, Monsieur asked coldly and carefully: 'What did you
do in Paris?' to which I responded briefly and warmly, 'We had a good
This reply pleased the rosette hugely. He wagged his head till I
thought it would have tumbled off. Even the moustache seemed amused.
Monsieur le Ministre de Sûreté de Noyon bit his lip. 'Never mind
writing that down,' he directed the lawyer. Then, returning to the
'You had a great deal of trouble with Lieutenant A.?'
I laughed outright at this complimentary nomenclature. 'Yes, we
He asked: 'Why?'—so I sketched 'Lieutenant' A. in vivid terms,
making use of certain choice expressions with which one of the 'dirty
Frenchmen' attached to the section, a Parisien, master of argot, had furnished me. My phraseology surprised my examiners, one
of whom (I think the moustache) observed sarcastically that I had made
good use of my time in Paris.
Monsieur le Ministre asked: 'Was it true (a) that B.
and I were always together and (b) preferred the company of the
attached Frenchmen to that of our fellow-Americans?—to which I
answered in the affirmative. Why? he wanted to know. So I explained
that we felt that the more French we knew and the better we knew the
French, the better for us; expatiating a bit on the necessity for a
complete mutual understanding of the Latin and Anglo-Saxon races if
victory was to be won.
Again the rosette nodded with approbation.
Monsieur le Ministre may have felt that he was losing his case, for
he played his trump card immediately: 'You are aware that your friend
has written to friends in America and to his family very bad letters.'
'I am not,' I said.
In a flash I understood the motivation of Monsieur's visit to
the French censor had intercepted some of B.'s
letters, and had notified Mr. A. and Mr. A.'s translator, both of whom
had thankfully testified to the bad character of B. and (wishing very
naturally to get rid of both of us at once) had further averred that we
were always together and that consequently I might properly be regarded
as a suspicious character. Whereupon they had received instructions to
hold us at the section until Noyon could arrive and take charge—hence
our failure to obtain our long overdue permission.
'Your friend,' said Monsieur in English, 'is here a short while
ago. I ask him if he is up in the aeroplane flying over Germans will
he drop the bombs on Germans and he say no, he will not drop any bombs
By this falsehood (such as it happened to be) I confess that I was
nonplussed. In the first place, I was at the time innocent of
third-degree methods. Secondly: I remembered that, a week or so since,
B., myself and another American in the section had written a letter
which, on the advice of the sous-lieutenant who accompanied Vingt-et-Un
as translator, we had addressed to the Under-Secretary
of State in French Aviation, asking that inasmuch as the American
Government was about to take over the Red Cross (which meant that all
the sections sanitaires would be affiliated with the American,
and no longer with the French Army) we three at any rate might be
allowed to continue our association with the French by enlisting in
l'Esquadrille Lafayette. One of the 'dirty Frenchmen' had written the
letter for us in the finest language imaginable, from data supplied by
'You write a letter, your friend and you, for French aviation?'
Here I corrected him: there were three of us, and why didn't he have
the third culprit arrested, might I ask? But he ignored this little
digression, and wanted to know: Why not American aviation?—to which I
answered: Ah, but as my friend has so often said to me, the French are
after all the finest people in the world.
This double-blow stopped Noyon dead, but only for a second.
'Did your friend write this letter?'—'No,' I answered
truthfully.—'Who did write it?'—'One of the Frenchmen attached to
the section.'—'What is his name?'—'I'm sure I don't know,' I
answered; mentally swearing that whatever might happen to me, the
scribe should not suffer. 'At my urgent request,' I added.
Relapsing into French, Monsieur asked me if I would have any
hesitation in dropping bombs on Germans? I said no, I wouldn't. And why
did I suppose I was fitted to become aviator? Because, I told him, I
weighed 135 pounds and could drive any kind of auto or motor-cycle. (I
hoped he would make me prove this assertion, in which case I promised
myself that I wouldn't stop till I got to Munich; but no.)
'Do you mean to say that my friend was not only trying to avoid
serving in the American Army but was contemplating treason as well?' I
'Well, that would be it, would it not?' he answered coolly. Then,
leaning forward once more, he fired at me: 'Why did you write to an
official so high?'
At this I laughed outright. 'Because the excellent sous-lieutenant
who translated when Mr. Lieutenant A. couldn't understand advised us
to do so.'
Following up this sortie, I addressed the moustache: 'Write this
down in the testimony—that I, here present, refuse utterly to believe
that my friend is not as sincere a lover of France and the French
people as any man living!—Tell him to write it,' I commanded Noyon
stonily. But Noyon shook his head, saying: 'We have the very best
reason for supposing your friend to be no friend of France.' I
answered: 'That is not my affair. I want my opinion of my friend
written in; do you see?' 'That's reasonable,' the rosette murmured; and
the moustache wrote it down.
'Why do you think we volunteered?' I asked sarcastically, when the
testimony was complete.
Monsieur le Ministre was evidently rather uncomfortable. He writhed
a little in his chair, and tweaked his chin three or four times. The
rosette and the moustache were exchanging animated phrases. At last
Noyon, motioning for silence and speaking in an almost desperate tone,
'Est-ce-que vous détestez les boches?'
I had won my own case. The question was purely perfunctory. To walk
out of the room a free man I had merely to say yes. My examiners were
sure of my answer. The rosette was leaning forward and smiling
encouragingly. The moustache was making little oui's in the air with
his pen. And Noyon had given up all hope of making me out a criminal. I
might be rash, but I was innocent; the dupe of a superior and malign
intelligence. I would probably be admonished to choose my friends more
carefully next time, and that would be all....
Deliberately, I framed the answer:
Non. J'aime beaucoup les français.'
Agile as a weasel, Monsieur le Ministre was on top of me: 'It is
impossible to love Frenchmen and not to hate Germans.'
I did not mind his triumph in the least. The discomfiture of the
rosette merely amused me. The surprise of the moustache I found very
Poor rosette! He kept murmuring desperately: 'Fond of his friend,
quite right. Mistaken of course, too bad, meant well.'
'With a supremely disagreeable expression on his immaculate face the
victorious minister of security pressed his victim with regained
assurance: 'But you are doubtless aware of the atrocities committed by
'I have read about them,' I replied cheerfully.
'You do not believe?'
'Ça se peut.'
'And if they are so, which of course they are' (tone of profound
conviction), 'you do not detest the Germans?'
'Oh, in that case, of course anyone must detest them,' I averred
with perfect politeness.
And my case was lost, for ever lost. I breathed freely once more.
All my nervousness was gone. The attempt of the three gentlemen sitting
before me to endow my friend and myself with different fates had
At the conclusion of a short conference I was told by Monsieur:
'I am sorry for you, but due to your friend you will be detained a
I asked: 'Several weeks?'
'Possibly,' said Monsieur.
This concluded the trial.
Monsieur le Ministre conducted me into room number 1 again. 'Since I
have taken your cigarettes and shall keep them for you, I will give you
some tobacco. Do you prefer English or French?'
Because the French
are stronger and because he
expected me to say English, I said 'French.'
With a sorrowful expression Noyon went to a sort of book-case and
took down a blue packet. I think I asked for matches, or else he had
given back the few which he found on my person.
Noyon, t-d and the grand criminal (alias I) now descended solemnly
to the F.I.A.T. The more and more mystified conducteur conveyed us a short distance to what was obviously a prison-yard.
Monsieur le Ministre watched me descend my voluminous baggage.
This was carefully examined by Monsieur at the
bureau of the
prison. Monsieur made me turn everything topsy-turvy and
inside-out. Monsieur expressed great surprise at a huge coquille: where did I get it?—I said a French soldier gave it to me as a
souvenir.—And several têtes d'obus?—Also souvenirs, I
assured him merrily. Did Monsieur suppose I was caught in the act of
blowing up the French Government, or what exactly?—But here are a
dozen sketch-books, what is in them?—Oh, Monsieur, you flatter me:
drawings.—Of fortifications?—Hardly; of poilus, children, and other
ruins.—Ummmm. (Monsieur examined the drawings and found that I had
spoken the truth.) Monsieur puts all these trifles into a small bag,
with which I had been furnished (in addition to the huge duffle-bag) by
the generous Crois Rouge. Labels them (in French): 'Articles
found in the baggage of Cummings and deemed inutile to the case at
hand.' This leaves in the duffle-bag aforesaid: my fur coat, which I
brought from New York, my bed and blankets and bedroll, my civilian
clothes, and about twenty-five pounds of soiled linen. 'You may take
the bed-roll and the folding bed into your cell'—the rest of my affaires
will remain in safe keeping at the
'Come with me,' grimly croaked a lank turnkey-creature.
Bed-roll and bed in hand, I came along.
'We had but a short distance to go; several steps in fact. I
remember we turned a corner and somehow got sight of a sort of square
near the prison. A military band was executing itself to the stolid
delight of some handfuls of ragged civiles. My new captor
paused a moment; perhaps his patriotic soul was stirred. Then we
traversed an alley with locked doors on both sides, and stopped in
front of the last door on the right. A key opened it. The music could
still be distinctly heard.
The opened door showed a room, about sixteen feet short and four
feet narrow, with a heap of straw in the further end. My spirits had
been steadily recovering from the banality of their examination; and it
was with a genuine and never-to-be-forgotten thrill that I remarked, as
I crossed what might have been the threshold: 'Mais, on est
A hideous crash nipped the last word. I had supposed the whole
prison to have been utterly destroyed by earthquake, but it was only my
II. EN ROUTE
I PUT the bed-roll down. I stood up.
I was myself.
An uncontrollable joy gutted me after three months of humiliation,
of being bossed and herded and bullied and insulted. I was myself and
my own master.
In this delirium of relief (hardly noticing what I did) I inspected
the pile of straw, decided against it, set up my bed, disposed the roll
on it, and began to examine my cell.
I have mentioned the length and breadth. The cell was ridiculously
high; perhaps ten feet. The end with the door in it was peculiar. The
door was not placed in the middle of this end, but at one side,
allowing for a huge iron can waist-high which stood in the other
corner. Over the door and across the end, a grating extended. A slit of
sky was always visible.
Whistling joyously to myself, I took three steps which brought me to
the door end. The door was massively made, all of iron or steel I
should think: It delighted me. The can excited my curiosity. I looked
over the edge of it. At the bottom reposefully lay a new human t . . d.
I have a sneaking mania for wood-cuts, particularly when used to
illustrate the indispensable psychological crisis of some out-worn
romance. There is in my possession at this minute a masterful depiction
of a tall, bearded, horrified man who, clad in an anonymous rig of
goatskins, with a fantastic umbrella clasped weakly in one huge paw,
bends to examine an indication of humanity in the somewhat cubist
wilderness whereof he had fancied himself the owner . . .
It was then that I noticed the walls. Arm-high they, were covered
with designs, mottoes, pictures. The drawing had all been done in
pencil. I resolved to ask for a pencil at the first opportunity.
There had been Germans and Frenchmen imprisoned in this cell. On the
right wall, near the door-end, was a long selection from Goethe,
laboriously copied. Near the other end of this wall a satiric landscape
took place. The technique of this landscape frightened me. There were
houses, men, children. And there were trees. I began to wonder what a
tree looks like, and laughed copiously.
The back wall had a large and exquisite portrait of a German officer.
The left wall was adorned with a yacht, flying a number —13. 'My
beloved boat' was inscribed in German underneath. Then came a bust of a
German soldier, very idealized, full of unfear. After this, a masterful
crudity—a doughnut-bodied rider, sliding with fearful rapidity down
the acute back-bone of a totally transparent sausage-shaped horse who
was moving simultaneously in five directions. The rider had a bored
expression as he supported the stiff reins in one fist. His further leg
assisted in his flight. He wore a German soldier's cap and was smoking.
I made up my mind to copy the horse and rider at once, so soon that is
as I should have obtained a pencil.
Last, I found a drawing surrounded by a scrolled motto. The drawing
was a potted plant with four blossoms. The four blossoms were
elaborately dead. Their death was drawn with a fearful care. An obscure
deliberation was exposed in the depiction of their drooping petals. The
pot tottered very crookedly on a sort of table, as near as I could see.
All around ran a funereal scroll. I read: 'Mes dernières adieux à ma
femme aimée, Gaby.' A fierce hand, totally distinct from the
former, wrote in proud letters above: 'Tombé pour désert. Six ans de
It must have been five o'clock. Steps. A vast cluttering of the
exterior of the door-by whom? Whang opens the door. Turnkey-creature
extending a piece of chocolat with extreme and surly caution. I
say 'Merci' and seize chocolat. Klang shuts the door.
I am lying on my back, the twilight does mistily bluish miracles
through the slit over the whang-klang. I can just see leaves, meaning
Then from the left and way off, faintly, broke a smooth whistle,
cool like a peeled willow-branch, and I found myself listening to an
air from Pétrouchka, Pétrouchka, which we saw in Paris at the Châtelet,
mon ami et moi ...
The voice stopped in the middle-and I finished the air. This code
continued for a half-hour.
It was dark.
I had laid a piece of my piece of
chocolat on the
window-sill. As I lay on my back, a little silhouette came along the
sill and ate that piece of a piece, taking something like four minutes
to do so. He then looked at me, I then smiled at him, and we parted,
each happier than before.
was cool, and I fell asleep easily.
(Thinking of Paris.)
... Awakened by a conversation whose vibrations I clearly felt
through the left wall:
A mouldily mouldering molish voice, suggesting putrefying tracts and
orifices, answers with a cob-webbish patience so far beyond despair as
to be indescribable: 'La soupe.'
'Well, the soup, I just gave it to you, Monsieur Savy.'
'Must have a little something else. My money is
directeur. Please take my money which is chez le directeur and give me anything else.'
'All right, the next time I come to see you to-day I'll bring you a
salad, a nice salad, Monsieur.'
'Thank you, Monsieur,' the voice mouldered.
Klang!—and says the t-c to somebody else; while turning the lock
of Monsieur Savy's door; taking pains to raise his voice so that
Monsieur Savy will not miss a single word through the slit over
Monsieur Savy's whang-klang:
'That old fool! Always asks for things. When supposest thou will he
realize that he's never going to get anything?'
Grubbing at my door. Whang!
The faces stood in the doorway, looking me down. The expression of
the face's identically turnkeyish, i.e., stupidly gloating, ponderously
and imperturbably tickled. Look who's here, who let that in.
The right body collapsed sufficiently to deposit a bowl just inside.
I smiled and said: 'Good morning, sirs. The can stinks.'
They did not smile and said: 'Naturally.' I smiled and said: 'Please
give me a pencil. I want to pass the time.' They did not smile and
I smiled and said: 'I want some water, if you please.'
They shut the door, saying 'Later.'
Klang and footsteps.
I contemplate the bowl, which contemplates me. A glaze of greenish
grease seals the mystery of its contents.
I induce two fingers to penetrate the seal. They bring me up a flat
sliver of choux and a large, hard, thoughtful, solemn, uncooked bean.
To pour the water off (it is warmish and sticky) without committing a
nuisance is to lift the cover off Ça Pue.. I did.
Thus leaving beans and cabbage-slivers. Which I ate hurryingly,
fearing a ventral misgiving.
I pass a lot of time cursing myself about the pencil, looking at my
walls, my unique interior.
Suddenly I realize the indisputable grip of nature's humorous hand.
One evidently stands on Ça Pue in such cases. Having
finished, panting with stink, I stumble on the bed and consider my next
The straw will do. Ouch, but it's Dirty.—Several hours elapse ...
Stepsandfurmble. Klang. Repetition of promise to Monsieur Savy, etc,
Turnkeyish and turnkeyish. Identical expression. One body collapses
sufficiently to deposit a hunk of bread and a piece of water.
'Give your bowl.'
I gave it, smiled and said: 'Well, how about that pencil?'
'Pencil?' T-c looked at T-c.
They recited then the following word: 'To-morrow.' Klangandfootsteps.
So I took matches, burnt, and with just 60 of them wrote the first
stanza of a ballad. To-morrow I will write the second. Day after
to-morrow the third. Next day the refrain. After—oh, well.
My whistling of Pétrouchka brought no response this evening.
So I climbed on
Ça Pue, whom I now regarded with complete
friendliness; the new moon was unclosing sticky wings in dusk, a far
noise from near things.
I sang a song the 'dirty Frenchmen' taught us,
mon ami et moi.
The song says
Bon soir, Madame de la Lune.... I did not sing out
loud, simply because the moon was like a mademoiselle, and I did not
want to offend the moon. My friends: the silhouette and la lune, not counting
whom I regarded almost as a part of
Then I lay down, and heard, (but could not see) the silhouette eat
something or somebody ... and saw, but could not hear, the incense of Ça Pue
mount gingerly upon the taking air of twilight.
The next day.—Promise to M. Savy. Whang. 'My pencil?'—'You don't
need any pencil, you're going away.'—When?!—'Directly.!—'How
directly? —— 'In an hour or two: your friend has already gone
before. Get ready.'
Every one very sore about me.
Je m'en fous pas mal,
One hour I guess.
Steps. Sudden throwing of door open. Pause.
'Come out, American.'
As I came out, toting bed and bed-roll, I remarked: 'I'm sorry to
leave you,' which made T-c furiously to masticate his unsignificant
bureau, where I am turned over to a very fat
'This is the American.' The v-f-g eyed me, and I read my sins in his
pork-like orbs. 'Hurry, we have to walk,' he ventured sullenly and
Himself stooped puffingly to pick up the segregated sack. And I
placed my bed, bed-roll, blankets, and ample pelisse under one arm, my
150-odd lb. duffle-bag under the other; then I paused. Then I said,
'Where's my cane?'
The v-f-g hereat had a sort of fit, which perfectly became him.
I repeated gently: 'When I came to the
bureau I had a
'Je m'en fous de ta canne,'
burbled my new captor frothily, his pink evil eyes swelling with
'I'm staying,' I replied calmly, and sat down on a curb., in the
midst of my ponderous trinkets.
of gendarmes gathered. One didn't take a cane with
one to prison (I was glad to know where I was bound, and thanked this
communicative gentleman); or criminals weren't allowed canes; or where
exactly did I think I was, in the Tuileries? asks a rube movie-cop
'Very well, gentlemen,' I said. 'You will allow me to tell you
something.' (I was beet-coloured.) 'En Amérique on ne fait pas comme
This haughty inaccuracy produced an astonishing effect, namely, the
prestidigitatorial vanishment of the v-f-g. The v-f-g's numerous
confrères looked scared and twirled their whiskers.
I sat on the curb and began to fill a paper with something which I
found in my pockets, certainly not tobacco.
Splutter-splutter-fizz-poop-the v-f-g is back, with my great
oak-branch in his raised hand, slithering opprobria and mostly crying:
'Is that huge piece of wood what you call a cane? Is it? It is, is it?
What? How? What the —-' so on.
I beamed upon him and thanked him, and explained that a 'dirty
Frenchman' had given it to me as a souvenir, and that I would now
Twisting the handle in the loop of my sack, and hoisting the vast
parcel under my arm, I essayed twice to boost it on my back. This to
the accompaniment of Hurry HurryHurryHurryHurryHurryHurry . . . The
third time I sweated and staggered to my feet, completely accoutred.
Down the road. Into the
ville. Curious looks from a few
pedestrians. A driver stops his wagon to watch the spider and his
outlandish fly. I chuckled to think how long since I had washed and
shaved. Then I nearly fell, staggered on a few steps and set down the
Perhaps it was the fault of the strictly vegetarian diet. At any
rate I couldn't move a step farther with my bundles. The sun sent the
sweat along my nose in tickling waves. My eyes were blind.
Hereupon I suggested that the v-f-g carry part of one of my bundles
with me, and received the answer: "I am doing too much for yoo as it is. No gendarme is supposed to carry a prisoner's baggage."
I said then: 'I'm too tired.'
He responded: 'You can leave here anything you don't care to carry
further; I'll take care of it.'
I looked at the gendarme. I looked several blocks through him. My
lip did something like a sneer. My hands did something like fists.
At this crisis, along comes a little boy. May God bless all males
between seven and ten years of age in France.
The gendarme offered a suggestion, in these words: 'Have you any
change about you?' He knew of course that the sanitary official's first
act had been to deprive me of every last cent. The gendarme's eyes were
fine. They reminded me of ... never mind. 'If you have change,' said
he, 'you might hire this kid to carry some of your baggage.' Then he
lit a pipe which was made in his own image, and smiled fattily.
But herein the v-f-g had bust his milk-jug. There is a slit of a
pocket made in the uniform of his criminal on the right side, and
completely covered by the belt which his criminal always wears. His
criminal had thus outwitted the gumshoe fraternity.
The gosse could scarcely balance my smaller parcel, but managed
after three rests to get it to the station platform; here I tipped him
something like two cents (all I had) which, with dollar-big eyes he
took, and ran.
A strongly-built, groomed apache smelling of cologne and onions
greeted my v-f-g with that affection which is peculiar to gendarmes. On
me he stared cynically, then sneered frankly.
With a little tooty shriek, the funny train tottered in., My captors
had taken pains to place themselves at the wrong end of the platform.
Now they encouraged me to HurryHurryHurry.
I managed to get under the load and tottered the length of the train
to a car especially reserved. There was one other criminal, a
beautifully-smiling, shortish man, with a very fine blanket wrapped in
a waterproof oilskin cover. We grinned at each other (the most cordial
salutation, by the way, that I have ever exchanged with a human being)
and sat down opposite one another—he, plus my baggage which he helped
me lift in, occupying one seat; the gendarme-sandwich, of which I
formed the pièce de résistance, the other.
The engine got under way after several feints; which pleased the
Germans so that they sent seven scout planes right over the station,
train, us et tout. All the French anticraft guns went off
together for the sake of sympathy; the guardians of the peace squinted
cautiously. from their respective windows, and then began a debate on
the number of the enemy while their prisoners smiled at each other
'Il fait chaud,'
said this divine man, prisoner, criminal, or what not, as he
offered me a glass of wine in the form of a huge tin cup overflowed
from the bidon, in his slightly unsteady and delicately made
hand. He is a Belgian. Volunteered at beginning of war. Permission at
Paris, overstayed by one day. When he reported to his officer, the
latter announced that he was a deserter—'I said to him, "It is funny.
It is funny I should have come back, of my own free will, to my
company. I should have thought that being a deserter I would have
preferred to remain in Paris." ' The wine was terribly cold, and I
thanked my divine host.
Never have I tasted such wine.
They had given me a chunk of war-bread in place of blessing when I
left Noyon. I bit into it with renewed might. But the divine man across
from me immediately produced a sausage, half of which he laid simply
upon my knee. The halving was done with a large keen poilu's couteau.
I have not tasted a sausage since.
The pigs on my either hand had by this time overcome their
respective inertias and were chomping cheek-murdering chunks. They had
quite a lay-out, a regular picnic-lunch elaborate enough for kings or
even presidents. The v-f-g in particular annoyed me by uttering
alternate chompings and belchings. All the time be ate he kept his eyes
half-shut; and a mist overspread the sensual meadows of his coarse face.
His two reddish eyes rolled devouringly toward the blanket in its
waterproof roll. After a huge gulp of wine he said thickly (for his
huge moustache was crusted with saliva-tinted half-moistened shreds of
food), 'You will have no use for that machine, là-bas. They are
going to take everything away from you when you get there, you know. I
could use it nicely. I have wanted such a piece of caoutchouc for a great while, in order to make me an
see?" (Gulp. Swallow.)
Here I had an inspiration. I would save the blanket-cover by drawing
these brigands' attention to myself. At the same time I would satisfy
my inborn taste for the ridiculous. 'Have you a pencil?' I said.
'Because I am an artist in my own country, and will do your picture.'
He gave me a pencil. I don't remember where the paper came from. I
posed him in a pig-like position, and the picture made him chew his
moustache. The apache thought it very droll. I should do his picture
too, at once. I did my best; though protesting that he was too
beautiful for my pencil, which remark he countered by murmuring (as he
screwed his moustache another notch), 'Never mind, you will try.' Oh,
yes, I would try all right, all right. He objected, I recall, to the
By this time the divine 'deserter' was writhing with joy. 'If you
please, Monsieur,' he whispered radiantly, 'it would be too great an
honour, but if you could—I should be overcome.. .'
Tears (for some strange reason) came into my eyes.
He handled his picture sacredly, criticized it with precision and
care, finally bestowed it in his inner pocket. Then we drank. It
happened that the train stopped and the apache was persuaded to go out
and get his prisoner's bidon filled. Then we drank again.
He smiled as he told me he was getting ten years. Three years at
solitary confinement was it, and seven working in a gang on the road?
That would not be so bad. He wishes he was not married, had not a
little child. 'The bachelors are lucky in this war'—he smiled.
Now the gendarmes began cleaning their beards, brushing their
stomachs, spreading their legs, collecting their baggage. The reddish
eyes, little and cruel, woke from the trance of digestion and settled
with positive ferocity on their prey. 'You will have no use...'
Silently the sensitive, gentle hands of the divine prisoner undid
the blanket-cover. Silently the long, tired, well-shaped arms passed it
across to the brigand at my left side. With a grunt of satisfaction the
brigand stuffed it in a large pouch, taking pains that it should not
show. Silently the divine eyes said to mine: 'What can we do, we
criminals?' And we smiled at each other for the last time, the eyes and
A station. The apache descends. I follow with my numerous affaires.
The divine man follows me—the v-f-g him.
The blanket-roll containing my large fur-coat got more and more
unrolled; finally I could not possibly hold it.
It fell. To pick it up, I must take the sack off my back.
Then comes a voice, 'Allow me, if you please, monsieur' —and the
sack has disappeared. Blindly and dumbly I stumbled on with the roll;
and so at length we come into the yard of a little prison; and the
divine man bowed under my great sack ... I never thanked him. When I
turned, they'd taken him away, and the sack stood accusingly at my feet.
Through the complete disorder of my numbed mind flicker jabbings of
strange tongues. Some high boy's voice is appealing to me in Belgian,
Italian, Polish, Spanish, and—beautiful English. 'Hey, Jack, give me
a cigarette, Jack . . .'
I lift my eyes. I am standing in a tiny oblong space. A sort of
court. All around, two-story wooden barracks. Little crude staircases
lead up to doors heavily chained and immensely padlocked. More like
ladders than stairs. Curious hewn windows, smaller in proportion than
the slits in a doll's house. Are these faces behind the slits? The
doors bulge incessantly under the shock of bodies hurled against them
from within. The whole dirty nouveau business about to crumble.
Glance two: directly before me. A wall with many bars fixed across
one minute opening. At the opening a dozen, fifteen, grins. Upon the
bars hands, scraggy and bluishly white. Through the bars stretchings of
lean arms, incessant stretchings. The grins leap at the window, hands
belonging to them catch hold, arms belonging to the hands stretch in my
direction ... an instant; then new grins leap from behind and knock off
the first grins which go down with a fragile crashing like glass
smashed: hands wither and break, arms streak out of sight, sucked
In the huge potpourri of misery a central figure clung, shaken but
undislodged. Clung like a monkey to central bars. Clung like an angel
to a harp. Calling pleasantly in a high boyish voice: 'O Jack, give me
A handsome face, dark, Latin smile, musical fingers strong.
I waded suddenly through a group of gendarmes (they stood around me
watching with a disagreeable curiosity my reaction to this). Strode
fiercely to the window.
Trillions of hands.
Quadrillions of itching fingers.
The angel-monkey received the package of cigarettes politely,
disappearing with it into howling darkness. I heard his high boy's
voice distributing cigarettes. Then he leapt into sight, poised
gracefully against two central bars, saying, 'Thank you, Jack, good
boy'. . . 'Thanks, merci, gracias . . .' a deafening din of
gratitude reeked from within.
'Put your baggage in here,' quoth an angry voice. 'No, you will not
take anything but one blanket in your cell, understand.' In French.
Evidently the head of the house speaking. I obeyed. A corpulent soldier
importantly led me to my cell. My cell is two doors away from the
monkey-angel, on the same side. The high boy-voice, centralized in a
torrent-like halo of stretchings, followed my back. The head himself
unlocked a lock. I marched coldly in. The fat soldier locked and
chained my door. Four feet went away. I felt in my pocket, finding four
cigarettes. I am sorry I did not give these also to the monkey—to the
angel. Lifted my eyes, and saw my own harp.
III. A PILGRIM'S PROGRESS
THROUGH the bars I looked into that little and dirty lane whereby I
had entered; in which a sentinel, gun on shoulder, and with a huge
revolver strapped at his hip, monotonously moved. On my right was an
old wall overwhelmed with moss. A few growths stemmed from its
crevices. Their leaves are of a refreshing colour. I felt singularly
happy, and carefully throwing myself on the bare planks sang one after
another all the French songs which I had picked up in my stay at the
ambulance; sang La Madelon, sang AVec avEC DU, and Les Galiots sont
Lourds dans l'Sac—concluding with an inspired rendering of La
Marseillaise, at which the guard (who had several times stopped his
round in what I choose to interpret as astonishment) grounded arms and
swore appreciatively. Various officials of the jail passed by me and my
lusty songs; I cared no whit. Two or three conferred, pointing in my
direction, and I sang a little louder for the benefit of their
perplexity. Finally out of voice I stopped.
It was twilight.
As I lay on my back luxuriously I saw through the bars of my twice
padlocked door a boy and a girl about ten years old. I saw them climb
on the wall and play together, obliviously and exquisitely, in the
darkening air. I watched them for many minutes; till the last moment of
light failed; till they and the wall itself dissolved in a common
mystery, leaving only the bored silhouette of the soldier moving
imperceptibly and wearily against a still more gloomy piece of autumn
At last I knew that I was very thirsty; and leaping up began to
clamour at my bars. 'Quelque chose à boire, s'il vous plait.'
After a long debate with the sergeant of guards, who said very angrily:
'Give it to him,' a guard took my request and disappeared from view,
returning with a more heavily armed guard and a tin cup full of water.
One of these gentry watched the water and me, while the other wrestled
with the padlock. The door being minutely opened, one guard and the
water painfully entered. The other guard remained at the door, gun in
readiness. The water was set down, and the enterer assumed a
perpendicular position which I thought merited recognition; accordingly
I said 'Merci' politely, without getting up from the planks.
Immediately he began to deliver a sharp lecture on the probability of
my using the tin cup to saw my way out; and commended haste in no
doubtful terms. I smiled, asked pardon for my inherent stupidity (which
speech seemed to anger him) and guzzled the so called water without
looking at it, having learned something from Noyon. With a long and
dangerous look at their prisoner, the gentlemen of the guard withdrew ,
using inconceivable caution in the re-locking of the door. I laughed
and fell asleep.
After (as I judged) four minutes of slumber, I was awakened by at
least six men standing over me. The darkness was intense, it was
extraordinarily cold. I glared at them and tried to understand what new
crime I had committed. One of the six was repeating: 'Get up, you are
going away. Quatre heures.' After several attempts
I got up. They formed a circle around me; and together we marched a few
steps to a sort of storeroom, where my great sack, small sack, and
overcoat were handed to me. A rather agreeably voiced guard then handed
me a half-cake of chocolat, saying (but with a tolerable grimness): 'Vous en aurez besoin, croyez-moi.'
I found my stick, at
which 'piece of furniture' they amused themselves a little until I
showed its use, by catching the ring at the mouth of my sack in the
curved end of the stick and swinging the whole business unaided on my
back. Two new guards—or rather gendarmes—were now officially put in
charge of my person; and the three of us passed down the lane, much to
the interest of the sentinel., to whom I bade a vivid and unreturned
adieu. I can see him perfectly as he stares stupidly at us, a queer
shape in the gloom, before turning on his heel.
Toward the very station whereat some hours since I had disembarked
with the Belgian deserter and my former escorts, we moved. I was stiff
with cold and only half awake, but peculiarly thrilled. The gendarmes
on either side moved grimly, without speaking; or returning
monosyllables to my few questions. Yes, we were to take the train. I
was going somewhere, then? 'B'en sûr.'—Where?' -'You will know
After a few minutes we reached the station, which I failed to
recognize. The yellow flares of lamps, huge and formless in the night
mist, some figures moving to and fro on a little platform, a rustle of
conversation: everything seemed ridiculously suppressed, beautifully
abnormal, deliciously insane. Every figure was wrapped with its
individual ghostliness; a number of ghosts each out on his own
promenade, yet each for some reason selecting this unearthly patch of
the world, this putrescent and uneasy gloom. Even my guards talked in
whispers. 'Watch him, I'll see about the train.' So one went off into
the mist. I leaned dizzily against the wall nearest me (having plumped
down my baggage) and stared into the darkness at my elbow, filled with
talking shadows. I recognized officiers anglais wandering
helplessly up and down, supported with their sticks; French lieutenants
talking to each other, here and there; the extraordinary sense-bereft
station-master at a distance looking like a cross between a
jumping-jack and a goblin; knots of permissionnaires cursing
wearily or joking hopelessly with one another or stalking back and
forth with imprecatory gesticulations. 'C'est d'la blague. Sais-tu,
il n'y a plus de trains?—'Le conducteur est mort, j'connais sa
sœur.'—'J'suis foutu, mon vieux!'—'Nous sommes tous perdus,
dis-donc.'—Quelle heure?'—'Mon cher, il n'y a plus d'heures, le
gouvernement français les défend.' Suddenly burst out of the
loquacious opacity of dozen handfuls of Algériens, their feet
swaggering with fatigue, their eyes burning apparently by
themselves—faceless in the equally black mist. By threes and fives
they assaulted the goblin who wailed and shook his withered fist in
their faces. There was no train. It had been taken away by the French
Government. 'How do I know how the poilus can get back to their
regiments on time? Of course you'll all of you be deserters, but is it
my fault?' (I thought of my friend, the Belgian, at this moment lying
in a pen at the prison which I had just quitted by some miracle) ...
One of these fine people from uncivilized, ignorant, unwarlike Algeria
was drunk and knew it, as did two of his very fine friends who
announced that as there was no train he should have a good sleep at a
farm-house hard by, which farm-house one of them claimed to espy
through the impenetrable night. The drunk was accordingly escorted into
the dark, his friends' abrupt steps correcting his own large slovenly
procedure out of earshot.... Some of the Black People sat down near me,
and smoked. Their enormous faces, wads of vital darkness, swooped with
fatigue. Their vast gentle hands lay noisily about their knees.
The departed gendarme returned, with a bump, out of the mist. The
train for Paris would arrive de suite. We were just in time, our
movements had so far been very creditable. All was well. It was cold,
Then with the ghastly miniature roar of an insane toy the train for
Paris came fumbling cautiously into the station....
'We boarded it, due caution being taken that I should not escape. As
a matter of fact I held up the would-be passengers for nearly a minute
by my unaided attempts to boost my uncouth baggage aboard. Then my
captors and I blundered heavily into a compartment in which an
Englishman and two Frenchwomen were Seated. My gendarmes established
themselves on either side of the door, a process which woke up the
Anglo-Saxon and caused a brief gap in the low talk of the women.
Jolt—we were off.
I find myself with a
on my left and an
anglais on my right. The latter has already uncomprehendingly subsided into
sleep. The former (a woman of about thirty) is talking pleasantly to
her friend, whom I face. She must have been very pretty before she put
on the black. Her friend is also a veuve. How pleasantly they
talk, of la guerre, of Paris, of the bad service; talk in
agreeably modulated voices, leaning a little forward to each other, not
wishing to disturb the dolt at my right. The train tears slowly on.
Both the gendarmes are asleep, one with his hand automatically grasping
the handle of the door. Lest I escape. I try all sorts of positions,
for I find myself very tired. The best is to put my cane between my
legs and rest my chin on it; but even that is uncomfortable, for the
Englishman has writhed all over me by this time and is snoring
creditably. I look him over; an Etonian, as I guess. Certain
well-bred-well-fedness. Except for the position-well, c'est la
guerre. The women are speaking softly. 'And do you know, my dear,
that they had raids again in Paris? My sister wrote me.'—'One has
excitement always in a great city, my dear.'—
Bump, slowing down. BUMP-BUMP.
It is light outside. One sees the world. There is a world still, the
has not taken it away, and the air must be
beautifully cool. In the compartment it is hot. The gendarmes smell
worst. I know how I smell. 'What polite women.
Enfin, nous voilà.
My guards awoke and yawned pretentiously. Lest I should
think they had dozed off. It is Paris.
cried 'Paris.' The woman across from me
said 'Paris, Paris.' A great shout came up from every insane drowsy
brain that had travelled with us—a fierce and beautiful cry, which
went the length of the train.... Paris where one forgets, Paris which
is Pleasure, Paris in whom our souls live, Paris the beautiful, Paris enfin.
The Englishman woke up and said heavily to me: 'I say, where are we?'
'Paris,' I answered, walking carefully on his feet as I made my
baggage-laden way out of the compartment. It was Paris.
My guards hurried me through the station. One of them (I saw for the
first time) was older than the other, and rather handsome with his Van
Dyck blackness of curly beard. He said that it was too early for the métro,
it was closed. We should take a car. It would bring us to
the other Gare from which our next train left. We should hurry.
We emerged from the station and its crowds of crazy men. We boarded a
car marked something. The conductress, a strong, pink-cheeked, rather
beautiful girl in black, pulled my baggage in for me with a gesture
which filled all of me with joy. I thanked her, and she smiled at me.
The car moved along through the morning.
We descended from it. We started off on foot. The car was not the
right car. We would have to walk to the station. I was faint and almost
dead from weariness and I stopped when my overcoat had fallen from my
benumbed arm for the second time: 'How far is it?' The older gendarme
returned briefly, 'Vingt minutes.' I said to him: 'Will
you help me carry these things?' He thought, and told the younger to
carry my small sack filled with papers. The latter grunted, 'C'est
défendu.' We went a little farther, and I broke down again.
I stopped dead, and said: 'I can't go any farther.' It was obvious to
my escorts that I couldn't, so I didn't trouble to elucidate. Moreover,
I was past elucidation.
The older stroked his beard. 'Well,' he said, 'would you care to
take a fiacre?' I merely looked at him. 'If you wish to call a fiacre,
I will take out of your money, which I have here and
which I must not give to you, the necessary sum, and make a note of it,
subtracting from the original amount a sufficiency for our fare to the Gare.
In that case we will not walk to the
Gare, we will in
'S'il vous plait,'
was all I found to reply to this eloquence.
Several fiacres libres
had gone by during the peroration of
the law, and no more seemed to offer themselves. After some minutes,
however, one appeared and was duly hailed.
Nervously (he was shy in the big city) the older asked if the
cocher knew where the
the cocher angrily. And when he was told'Naturellement, je
connais, pourquoi pas?' we got in; I being directed to sit in the
middle, and my two bags and fur coat piled on top of us all.
So we drove through the streets in the freshness of the full
morning, the streets full of a few divine people who stared at me and
nudged one another, the streets of Paris ... the drowsy ways wakening
at the horse's hoofs, the people lifting their faces to stare.
We arrived at the
Gare, and I recognized it vaguely. 'Was it
D'Orleans? We dismounted, and the tremendous transaction of the fare
was apparently very creditably accomplished by the older. The cocher gave me a look and remarked whatever it is Paris
to Paris fiacre-horses, pulling dully at the reins. We entered the
station and I collapsed comfortably on a bench; the younger, seating
himself with enormous pomposity at my side, adjusted his tunic with a
purely feminine gesture expressive at once of pride and nervousness.
Gradually my vision gained in focus. The station has a good many people
in it. The number increases momently. A great many are girls. I am in a
new world—a world of chic femininity. My eyes devour the inimitable
details of costume, the inexpressible nuances of pose, the
indescribable démarche of the midinette. They hold themselves
differently. They have even a little bold colour here and there on
skirt or blouse or hat. They are not talking about la guerre. Incredible. They appear very beautiful, these Parisiennes.
And simultaneously with my appreciation of the crisp persons about
me comes the hitherto unacknowledged appreciation of my uncouthness. My
chin tells my hand of a good quarter inch of beard, every hair of it
stiff with dirt. I can feel the dirt-pools under my eyes. My hands are
rough with dirt. My uniform is smeared and creased in a hundred
thousand directions. My puttees and shoes are prehistoric in
My first request was permission to visit the
younger didn't wish to assume any unnecessary responsibilities; I
should wait till the older returned. There he was now. I might ask him.
The older benignly granted my petition, nodding significantly to his
fellow-guard, by whom I was accordingly escorted to my destination and
subsequently back to my bench. 'When we got back the gendarmes held a
consultation of terrific importance; in substance, the train which
should be leaving at that moment (six something) did not run to-day.
'We should therefore wait for the next train, which leaves at
twelve-something-else. Then the older surveyed me, and said almost
kindly: 'How would you like a cup of coffee?'—'Much,' I replied
sincerely enough.—'Come with me,' he commanded, resuming instantly
his official manner. 'And you' (to the younger) 'watch his baggage.'
Of all the very beautiful women whom I had seen the most very
beautiful was the large and circular lady who sold a cup of perfectly
hot and genuine coffee for deux sous, just on the brink of the
station, chatting cheerfully with her many customers. Of all the drinks
I ever drank, hers was the most sacredly delicious. She wore, I
remember, a tight black dress in which enormous and benignant breasts
bulged and sank continuously. I lingered over my tiny cup, watching her
swift big hands, her round nodding face, her large sudden smile. I
drank two coffees, and insisted that my money should pay for our
drinks. Of all the treating which I shall ever do, the treating of my
captor will stand unique in pleasure. Even he half appreciated the
sense of humour involved; though his dignity did not permit a visible
Madame la vendeuse de café,
I shall remember you for more than a little while.
Having thus consummated breakfast, my guardian suggested a walk.
Agreed. I felt I had the strength of ten because the coffee was pure.
Moreover, it would be a novelty, me promener sans 150-odd pounds
of baggage. We set out.
As we walked easily and leisurely the by this time well-peopled
rues of the vicinity, my guard indulged himself in pleasant
conversation. Did I know Paris much? He knew it all. But he had not
been in Paris for several (eight was it?) years. It was a fine place, a
large city to be sure. But always changing. I had spent a month in
Paris while waiting for my uniform and my assignment to a section
sanitaire? And my friend was with me? H-mmm-mm.
A perfectly typical runt of a Paris bull eyed us. The older saluted
him with infinite respect, the respect of a shabby rube deacon for a
well-dressed burglar. They exchanged a few well-chosen words, in French
of course. 'What ya got there?'—'An American.'—'What's wrong with
him? —'H-mmm'—mysterious shrug of the shoulders followed by a
whisper in the ear of the city thug. The latter contented himself with
'Ha-aaa'—plus a look at me which was meant to wipe me off the earth's
face (I pretended to be studying the morning meanwhile). Then we moved
on, followed by ferocious stares from the Paris bull. Evidently I was
getting to be more of a criminal every minute; I should probably be
shot to-morrow, not (as I had assumed erroneously) the day after. I
drank the morning with renewed vigour, thanking heaven for the coffee,
Paris; and feeling complete confidence in myself. I should make a great
speech (in Midi French). I should say to the firing squad:
'Gentlemen, c'est d'la blague, tu sais? Moi, je connais la sœur du
conducteur.' ... They would ask me when I preferred to die. I
should reply, 'Pardon me, you wish to ask me when I prefer to become
immortal?' I should answer: 'What matter? Ça m'est égal, parce qu'il
n'y a plus d'heures—le gouvernement français les défend.'
My laughter surprised the older considerably. He would have been
more astonished had I yielded to the well-nigh irrepressible
inclination, which at the moment suffused me, to clap him heartily upon
the police, the morning, and least and last the excellent French
We had walked for a half-hour or more. My guide and protector now
inquired of an ouvrier the location of the boucheries. 'There is one right in front of you,' he was told. Sure enough, not a
block away. I laughed again. It was eight years all right.
The older bought a great many things in the next five minutes:
saucisse, fromage, pain, chocolat, pinard rouge.
A bourgeoise with
an unagreeable face and suspicion of me written in headlines all over
her mouth served us with quick hard laconicisms of movement. I hated
her and consequently refused my captor's advice to buy a little of
everything (on the ground that it would be a long time till the next
meal), contenting myself with a cake of chocolate—rather bad
chocolate, but nothing to what I was due to eat during the next three
months. Then we retraced our steps, arriving at the station after
several mistakes and inquiries, to find the younger faithfully keeping
guard over my two sacs and overcoat.
The older and I sat down, and the younger took his turn at
promenading. I got up to buy a Fantasio at the stand ten steps away,
and the older jumped up and escorted me to and from it. I think I asked
him what he would read? and he said 'Nothing.' Maybe I bought him a
journal. So we waited, eyed by every one in the Gare, laughed at
by the officers and their marraines, pointed at by sinewy dames
and decrepit bonshommes—the centre of amusement for the whole
station. In spite of my reading I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Would
it never be Twelve? Here comes the younger, neat as a pin, looking
fairly sterilized. He sits down on my left. Watches are ostentatiously
consulted. It is time. En avant. I sling myself under my
'Where are we going now?' I asked the older. Curling the tips of his
moustachios, he replied 'Mah-say.'
Marseilles! I was happy once more. I had always wanted to go to that
great port of the Mediterranean, where one has new colours and strange
customs, and where the people sing when they talk. But how
extraordinary to have come to Paris—and what a trip lay before us. I
was muddled about the whole thing. Probably I was to be deported. But
why from Marseilles? Where was Marseilles, anyway? I was probably all
wrong about its location. Who cared, after all? At least we were
leaving the pointings and the sneers and the half-suppressed titters....
Two fat and respectable
the two gendarmes, and I,
made up one compartment. The former talked an animated stream, the
guards and I were on the whole silent. I watched the liquidating
landscape and dozed happily. The gendarmes dozed, one at each door. The
train rushed lazily across the earth, between farmhouses, into fields,
along woods ... the sunlight smacked my eye and cuffed my sleepy mind
I was awakened by a noise of eating. My protectors, knife in hand,
were consuming their meat and bread, occasionally tilting their bidons on high and absorbing the thin streams which spurted
therefrom. I tried a little chocolat. The bonshommes were
already busy with their repast. The older gendarme watched me chewing
away at the chocolat, then commanded, 'Take some bread.' This
astonished me, I confess, beyond anything which had heretofore
occurred. I gazed mutely at him, wondering whether the gouvernement
français had made away with his wits. He had relaxed amazingly: his
cap lay beside him, his tunic was unbuttoned, he slouched in a
completely undisciplined posture—his face seemed to have been changed
for a peasant's, it was almost open in expression and almost completely
at ease. I seized the offered hunk and chewed vigorously on it. Bread
was bread. The older appeared pleased with my appetite; his face
softened, still more, as he remarked: 'Bread without wine doesn't taste
good,' and proffered his bidon. I drank as much as I
dared, and thanked him—, 'Ça va mieux.' The pinard went
straight to my brain, I felt my mind cuddled by a pleasant warmth, my
thoughts became invested with a great contentment. The train stopped;
and the younger sprang out carrying the empty bidons of himself
and his confrère. When they and he returned, I enjoyed another coup
. From that moment till we reached our destination at about eight
o'clock the older and I got on extraordinarily well. When the gentlemen
descended at their station he waxed almost familiar. I was in excellent
spirits; rather drunk; extremely tired. Now that the two guardians and
myself were alone in the compartment, the curiosity which had hitherto
been stifled by etiquette and pride of capture came rapidly to light.
'Why was I here, anyway? I seemed well enough to them.—Because my
friend had written some letters, I told them.—But I had done nothing
myself?—I explained that nous étions toujours ensemble, mon ami et
moi; that was the only reason which I knew of.—It was very funny
to see how this explanation improved matters. The older in particular
was immensely relieved.—I would without doubt, he said, be set free
immediately upon my arrival. The French Government didn't keep people
like me in prison.—They fired some questions about America at me, to
which I imaginatively replied. I think I told the younger that the
average height of buildings in America was nine hundred metres. He
stared and shook his head doubtfully, but I convinced him in the end.
Then in my turn I asked questions, the first being: Where was my
friend?—It seems that my friend had left Gré (or whatever it was) the
morning of the day I had entered it.—Did they know where my friend
was going?—They couldn't say. They had been told that he was very
dangerous.—So we talked on and on: How long had I studied French? I
spoke very well. Was it hard to learn English?
Yet when I climbed out to relieve myself by the roadside one of them
was at my heels.
Finally watches were consulted, tunics buttoned, hats donned. I was
told in a gruff voice to prepare myself; that we were approaching the
end of our journey. Looking at the erstwhile participants in
conversation, I scarcely knew them. They had put on with their caps a
positive ferocity of bearing. I began to think that I had dreamed the
incidents of the preceding hours.
We descended at a minute, dirty station which possessed the air of
having been dropped by mistake from the bung of the gouvernement
français. The older sought out the station-master, who having
nothing to do was taking a siesta in a miniature waiting-room. The
general countenance of the place was exceedingly depressing; but I
attempted to keep up my spirits with the reflection that after all this
was but a junction, and that from here we were to take a train for
Marseilles herself. The name of the station, Briouse, I found somewhat
dreary. And now the older returned with the news that our train wasn't
running to-day, and that the next train didn't arrive till early
morning, and should we walk? I could check my great sac and
overcoat. The small sac I should carry along—it was only a
step, after all.
With a glance at the desolation of Briouse, I agreed to the stroll.
It was a fine night for a little promenade; not too cool, and with a
promise of a moon stuck into the sky. The sac and coat were
accordingly checked by the older; the station-master glanced at me and
haughtily grunted (having learned that I was an American); and my
protectors and I set out.
I insisted that we stop at the first café and have some wine on me.
To this my escorts agreed, making me go ten paces ahead of them, and
waiting until I was through before stepping up to the bar—not from
politeness, to be sure, but because (as I soon gathered) gendarmes were
not any too popular in this part of the world, and the sight of two
gendarmes with a prisoner might inspire the habitués to attempt a
rescue. Furthermore, on leaving the café (a desolate place if I ever
saw one, with a fearful patronne) I was instructed sharply to
keep close to them but on no account to place myself between them,
there being sundry villagers to be encountered before we struck the
high-road to Marseilles. Thanks to their forethought and my obedience
the rescue did not take place, nor did our party excite even the
curiosity of the scarce and soggy inhabitants of the unlovely town of
The high road won, all of us relaxed considerably. The
full of suspicious letters which I bore on my shoulder was not so
light as I had thought, but the kick of the Briouse pinard thrust me forward at a good clip. The road was absolutely deserted; the
night hung loosely around it, here and there tattered by attempting
moonbeams. I was somewhat sorry to find the way hilly, and in places
bad underfoot; yet the unknown adventure lying before me, and the
delicious silence of the night (in which our words rattled queerly like
tin soldiers in a plush-lined box) boosted me into a condition of
mysterious happiness. We talked, the older and I, of strange subjects.
As I suspected, he had been not always a gendarme. He had seen service
among the Arabs. He had always liked languages and had picked up
Arabian with great ease—of this he was very proud. For instance—the
Arabian way of saying 'Give me to eat' was this; when you wanted wine
you said so and so; 'Nice day' was something else. He thought I could
pick it up inasmuch as I had done so creditably with French. He was
absolutely certain that English was much easier to learn than French,
and would not be moved. Now what was the American language like? I
explained that it was a sort of Argot-English. When I gave him some
phrases he was astonished—'It sounds like English!' he cried, and
retailed his stock of English phrases for my approval. I tried hard to
get his intonation of the Arabian, and he helped me on the difficult
sounds. America must be a strange place, he thought....
After two hours' walking, he called a halt, bidding us rest. We all
lay flat on the grass by the roadside. The moon was still battling with
clouds. The darkness of the fields on either side was total. I crawled
on hands and knees to the sound of silver-trickling water and found a
little spring-fed stream. Prone, weight on elbows, I drank heavily of
its perfect blackness. It was icy, talkative, minutely alive.
The older presently gave a perfunctory 'alors'; we got up; I hoisted
my suspicious utterances upon my shoulder, which recognized the renewal
of hostilities with a neuralgic throb. I banged forward with bigger and
bigger feet. A bird, scared, swooped almost into my face. Occasionally
some night-noise pricked a futile minute hole in the enormous curtain
of soggy darkness. Uphill now. Every muscle thoroughly aching, head
spinning, I half-straightened my no longer obedient body; and jumped:
face to face with a little wooden man hanging all by itself in a grove
of low trees.
The wooden body clumsy with pain burst into fragile legs with
absurdly large feet and funny writhing toes; its little stiff arms made
abrupt, cruel, equal angles with the road. About its stunted loins
clung a ponderous and jocular fragment of drapery. On one terribly
brittle shoulder the droll lump of its neckless head ridiculously
lived. There was in this complete silent doll a gruesome truth of
instinct, a success of uncanny poignancy, an unearthly ferocity of
For perhaps a minute the almost obliterated face and mine eyed one
another in the silence of intolerable autumn.
Who was this wooden man? Like a sharp, black, mechanical cry in the
spongy organism of gloom stood the coarse and sudden sculpture of his
torment; the big mouth of night carefully spurted the angular actual
language of his martyred body. I had seen him before in the dream of
some mediæval saint with a thief sagging at either side, surrounded
with crisp angels. To-night he was alone; save for myself, and the
moon's minute flower pushing between slabs of fractured cloud.
I was wrong, the moon and I and he were not alone. ... A glance up
the road gave me two silhouettes at pause. The gendarmes were waiting.
I must hurry to catch up or incur suspicion by my sloth. I hastened
forward, with a last look over my shoulder ... the wooden man was
When I came abreast of them, expecting abuse, I was surprised by the
older's saying quietly, 'We haven't far to go,' and plunging forward
imperturbably into the night.
Nor had we gone a half-hour before several dark squat forms
confronted us: houses. I decided that I did not like
houses—particularly as now my guardians' manner abruptly changed;
once more tunics were buttoned, holsters adjusted, and myself directed
to walk between and keep always up with the others. Now the road became
thoroughly afflicted with houses, houses not however so large and
lively as I had expected from my dreams of Marseilles. Indeed we seemed
to be entering an extremely small and rather disagreeable town. I
ventured to ask what its name was. 'Mah-say' was the response. By this
I was fairly puzzled. However, the street led us to a square, and I saw
the towers of a church sitting in the sky; between them the round,
yellow, big moon looked immensely and peacefully conscious ... no one
was stirring in the little streets, all the houses were keeping the
We walked on.
I was too tired to think. I merely felt the town as a unique
unreality. What was it? I knew-the moon's picture of a town. These
streets with their houses did not exist, they were but a ludicrous
projection of the moon's sumptuous personality. This was a city of
Pretend, created by the hypnotism of moonlight.—Yet when I examined
the moon she too seemed but a painting of a moon, and the sky in which
she lived a fragile echo of colour. If I blew hard the whole shy
mechanism would collapse gently with a neat, soundless crash. I must
not, or lose all.
We turned a corner, then another. My guides conferred concerning the
location of something, I couldn't make out what. Then the older nodded
in the direction of a long, dull, dirty mass not a hundred yards away,
which (as near as I could see) served either as a church or a tomb.
Toward this we turned. All too soon I made out its entirely dismal
exterior. Grey, long, stone walls, surrounded on the street side by a
fence of ample proportions and uniformly dull colour. Now I perceived
that we made toward a gate, singularly narrow and forbidding, in the
grey, long wall. No living soul appeared to inhabit this desolation.
The older rang at the gate. A gendarme with a revolver answered his
ring; and presently he was admitted, leaving the younger and myself to
wait. And now I began to realize that this was the gendarmerie of the
town, into which for safe-keeping I was presently to be inducted for
the night. My heart sank, I confess, at the thought of sleeping in the
company of that species of humanity which I had come to detest beyond
anything in hell or on earth. Meanwhile the doorman had returned with
the older, and I was bidden roughly enough to pick up my baggage and
march. I followed my guides down a corridor, up a staircase, and into a
dark, small room where a candle was burning. Dazzled by the light and
dizzied by the fatigue of my ten- or twelve-mile stroll, I let my
baggage go; and leaned against a convenient wall, trying to determine
who was now my tormentor.
Facing me at a table stood a man of about my own height, and as I
should judge about forty years old. His face was seedy, sallow and
long. He had bushy, semicircular eyebrows which drooped so much as to
reduce his eyes to mere blinking slits. His cheeks were so furrowed
that they leaned inward. He had no nose, properly speaking, but a large
beak of preposterous widthlessness, which gave his whole face the
expression of falling gravely downstairs, and quite obliterated the
unimportant chin. His mouth was made of two long uncertain lips which
twitched nervously. His cropped black hair was rumpled, his blouse,
from which hung a croix-de-guerre, unbuttoned; and his unputteed
shanks culminated in bedslippers. In physique he reminded me a little
of Ichabod Crane. His neck was exactly like a hen's: I felt sure that
when he drank he must tilt his head back as hens do in order that the
liquid may run down their throats. But his method of keeping himself
upright, together with certain spasmodic contractions of his fingers
and the nervous 'uh-ah, uh-ah,' which punctuated his insecure phrases
like uncertain commas, combined to offer the suggestion of a rooster; a
rather moth-eaten rooster, which took itself tremendously seriously and
was showing-off to an imaginary group of admiring hens situated
somewhere in the background of his consciousness.
'Vous êtes uh-ah l'am-é-ri-cain?'
'Je suis américain,'
'Eh-bi-en uh-ah uh-ah
—We were expecting you.' He surveyed me with great interest.
Behind this seedy and restless personage I noted his absolute
likeness, adorning one of the walls. The rooster was faithfully
depicted à la Rembrandt at half-length in the stirring guise of a
fencer, foil in band, 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 êtes uh-ah KEW-MANGZ?'
"What?' I said, completely baffled by this extraordinary dissyllable.
'Comprenez vous fran-çais?'
'Bon. Alors, vous vous ap-pel-lez KEW-MANGZ, n'est-ce-pas? Edrouard
'Oh,' I said, relieved, 'yes.' It was really amazing, the way he
writhed around the G.
'Comment ça se prononce en anglais?'
I told him.
He replied benevolently, somewhat troubled, 'uh-ah uh-ah
uh-ah—Pour-quoi êtes vous ici, KEW-MANGS?
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 laughed.—-'Sais pas."
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 écrit, votre
ami des bê-tises, n'est-ce-pas?'—'So they told me. N'en
sais rien.'—'What sort of a person was your friend?'—'He was a
magnificent person, always très 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-MANGS.' I started
to pick up the sac, but be 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,
peut-être un jour, deux jours, je ne sais pas.'
Two days in a gendarmerie would be enough, I thought. We marched out.
Behind me the bed-slippered rooster uh-ahingly shuffled. In front of
me clumsily gambolled 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
I was to be confessed, then, of my guilty conscience, before
retiring? It boded well for the morrow.
... the measured accents of the fencer said:
paillasse.' I turned. He was bending over a formless mass in one
comer 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 doorway
by which we had entered. (I was somewhat pleased to leave the place.)
Back, down a corridor, up more stairs; and we are 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
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 to-night, in the morning nous allons voir,' directed the fencer. 'You won't need a blanket,' he added; and the
doors clanged, the light and fencer disappeared.
I needed no second invitation to sleep. Fully dressed, I fell on
with a weariness which I 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.
IV. LE NOUVEAU
'Vous ne voulez pas de café?'
The threatening question recited in a hoarse voice woke me like a
shot. Sprawled half on and half off my paillasse, I looked
suddenly up into a juvenile pimply face with a red tassel bobbing in
its eyes. A boy in a Belgian uniform was stooping over me. In one hand
a huge pail a third full of liquid slime. I said fiercely: "Au
contraire, je veux bien.' And collapsed on the mattress.
'Pas de quart, vous
?' the face fired at me.
I replied, wondering what on earth the words meant.
At this moment a tin cup appeared mysteriously out of the gloom and
was rapidly filled from the pail, after which operation the tassel
remarked. 'Your friend here,' and disappeared.
I decided I had gone completely crazy.
The cup had been deposited near me. Not daring to approach it, I
boosted my aching corpse on one of its futile elbows and gazed
blankly around. My eyes, wading laboriously through a dank atmosphere,
a darkness gruesomely tactile, perceived only here and there lively
pitches of vibrating humanity. My ears recognized English, something
which I took to be Low German and which was Belgian, Dutch, Polish, and
what I guessed to be Russian.
Trembling with this chaos, my hand sought the cup. The cup was not
warm; the contents, which I hastily gulped, was not even tepid. The
taste was dull, almost bitter, clinging, thick, nauseating. I felt a
renewed interest in living as soon as the deathful swallow descended to
my abdomen, very much as a suicide who changes his mind after the fatal
dose. I decided that it would be useless to vomit. I sat up. I looked
The darkness was rapidly going out of the sluggish, stinking air. I
was sitting on my mattress at one end of a sort of room, filled with
pillars; ecclesiastical in feeling. I already perceived it to be of
enormous length. My mattress resembled an island: all around it, at
distances varying from a quarter of an inch to ten feet (which
constituted the limit of distinct vision) reposed startling identities.
There was blood in some of them. Others consisted of a rind of bluish
matter sustaining a core of yellowish froth. From behind me a chunk of
hurtling spittle joined its fellows. I decided to stand up.
At this moment, at the far end of the room, I seemed to see an
extraordinary vulture-like silhouette leap up from nowhere. It rushed a
little way in my direction crying hoarsely 'Corvée d'eau!'—stopped,
bent down at what I perceived to be a paillasse like mine,
jerked what was presumably the occupant by the feet, shook him, turned
to the next, and so on up to six. As there seemed to be innumerable paillasses, laid side by side at intervals of perhaps a foot with
their heads to the wall on three sides of me, I was wondering why the
vulture had stopped at six. On each mattress a crude imitation of
humanity, wrapped ear-high in its blanket, lay and drank from a cup
like mine and spat long and high into the room. The ponderous reek of
sleepy bodies undulated toward me from three directions. I had lost
sight of the vulture in a kind of insane confusion which arose from the
further end of the room. It was as if he had touched off six high
explosives. Occasional pauses in the minutely crazy din were accurately
punctuated by exploding bowels; to the great amusement of innumerable
somebodies, whose precise whereabouts the gloom carefully guarded.
I felt that I was the focus of a group of indistinct recumbents who
were talking about me to one another in many incomprehensible tongues.
I noticed beside every pillar (including the one beside which I had
innocently thrown down my paillasse the night before) a good-sized
pail, overflowing with urine, and surrounded by a large irregular
puddle. My paillasse was within an inch of the nearest puddle. 'What I
took to be a man, an amazing distance off, got out of bed and succeeded
in locating the pail nearest to him after several attempts. The
invisible recumbents yelled at him in six languages.
All at once a handsome figure arose from the gloom at my elbow. I
smiled stupidly into his clear, hardish eyes. And he remarked
'Your friend's here, Johnny, and wants to see you.'
A bulge of pleasure swooped along my body, chasing aches and
numbness, my muscles danced, nerves tingled in perpetual holiday.
B. was lying on his camp-cot, wrapped like an Eskimo in a blanket
which hid all but his nose and eyes.
'Hello, Cummings,' he said smiling. 'There's a man here who is a
friend of Vanderbilt and knew Cézanne.'
I gazed somewhat critically at B. There was nothing particularly
insane about him, unless it was his enthusiastic excitement, which
might almost be attributed to my jack-in-the-box manner of arriving. He
said: 'There are people here who speak English, Russian, Arabian. There
are the finest people here! Did you go to Gré? I fought rats all night
there. Huge ones. They tried to eat me. And from Gré to Paris? I had
three gendarmes all the way to keep me from escaping, and they all fell
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
B. laughed, and said: 'I thought so when I arrived two days ago.
When I came in sight of the place a lot of girls waved from the window
and yelled at me. I no sooner got inside than a queer-looking duck whom
I took to be a nut came rushing up to me, and cried: "Trop
tard pour la soupe!"——This is Camp de Triage de la
Ferté Macé, Orne, France, and all these fine people were arrested as
espions. Only two or three of them can speak a word of French, and
I said: 'My God, I thought Marseilles was somewhere on the
Mediterranean Ocean, and that this was a gendarmerie.'
'But this is M-a-c-é. It's a little mean town, where everybody
snickers and sneers at you if they see you're a prisoner. They did at
'Do you mean to say we're
'Of course!' B. said enthusiastically. 'Thank God! And in to stay.
Every time I think of the section sanitaire, and A. and his
thugs, and the whole rotten red-taped Croix Rouge, I have
to laugh. Cummings, I tell you this is the finest place on earth!'
A vision of the
Chef de Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un
through my mind. The doughy face. Imitation-English-officer swagger.
Large calves, squeaking puttees.
The daily lecture: 'I doughno what's th' matter with you fellers.
You look like nice boys. Well-edjucated. But you're so dirty in your
habits. You boys are always kickin' because I don't put you on a car
together. I'm ashamed to do it, that's why. I doughwanta give this
section a black eye. 'We gotta show these lousy Frenchmen what
Americans are. We gotta show we're superior to 'em. Those bastards
doughno what a bath means. And you fellers are always hangin' round,
talkin' with them dirty frog-eaters that does the cookin' and the dirty
work round here. How d'you boys expect me to give you a chance? I'd
like to put you fellers on a car; I wanta see you boys happy. But I
don't dare to, that's why. If you want me to send you out, you gotta
shave and look neat, and keep away from them dirty Frencbmen. We
Americans are over here to learn them lousy bastards something.'
I laughed for sheer joy.
A terrific tumult interrupted my mirth.
'Par ici!'"—Get out
of the way, you dam Polak! '—'M'sieu', M'sieu'.'—'Over
here!''—'Mais non!'—'Gott-er-dummer!' I turned in terror to see my
paillasse in the clutches of four men who were apparently rending
it in as many directions.
One was a clean-shaved youngish man with lively eyes, alert and
muscular, whom I identified as the man who had called me 'Johnny.' He
had hold of a corner of the mattress and was pulling against the
possessor of the opposite corner: an incoherent personage enveloped in
a buffoonery of amazing rags and, patches, with a shabby head on which
excited wisps of dirty hair stood upright in excitement, and the tall,
ludicrous, extraordinary, almost noble figure of a dancing bear. A
third corner of the paillasse was rudely grasped by a six-foot
combination of yellow hair, red hooligan face, and sky-blue trousers;
assisted by the undersized tasselled mucker in Belgian uniform, with a
pimply rogue's mug and unlimited impertinence of diction, who had
awakened me by demanding if I wanted coffee. Albeit completely dazed by
the uncouth vocal fracas, I realized in some manner that these hostile
forces were contending, not for the possession of the mattress, but
merely for the privilege of presenting the mattress to myself.
Before I could offer any advice on this delicate topic, a childish
voice cried emphatically beside my ear: 'Met-tez la pail-lasse ici!
Qu'est le que vous al-lez faire? C'est pas la peine de dé-chi-rer une
pail-lasse!'——at the saine moment the mattress rushed with
cobalt strides in my direction, propelled by the successful efforts of
the Belgian uniform and the hooligan visage, the clean-shaven man and
the incoherent bear still desperately clutching their respective
corners; and upon its arrival was seized with surprising strength by
the owner of the child's voice—a fluffy little gnome-shaped man with
a sensitive face which had suffered much—and indignantly deposited
beside B.'s bed in a space mysteriously cleared for its reception. The
gnome immediately kneeled upon it and fell to carefully smoothing
certain creases caused by the recent conflict, exclaiming slowly,
syllable by syllable: 'Mon Dieu. Main-te-nant, c'est mieux. Il ne
faut pas faire des choses comme ça.' The clean-shaven man regarded
him loftily with folded arms, while the tassel and the trousers
victoriously inquired if I had a cigarette?—and upon receiving one
apiece (also the gnome, and the clean-shaven man, who accepted his with
some dignity) sat down without much ado on B.'s bed—which groaned
ominously in protest—and hungrily fired questions at me. The bear
meanwhile, looking as if nothing had happened, adjusted his ruffled
costume with a satisfied air and (calmly gazing into the distance)
began with singularly delicate fingers to stuff a stunted and ancient
pipe with what appeared to be a mixture of wood and manure.
I was still answering questions, when a gnarled voice suddenly
threatened, over our heads: 'Balai? Vous. Tout le monde propre.
Surveillant dit. Pas moi, n'est-ce pas?' -I started, expecting to
see a parrot.
It was the silhouette.
A vulture-like figure stood before me, a demoralized broom clenched
in one claw or fist: it had lean legs cased in shabby trousers,
muscular shoulders covered with a rough shirt open at the neck, knotted
arms, and a coarse, insane face crammed beneath the visor of a cap. The
face consisted of a rapid nose, drooping moustache, ferocious watery
small eyes, a pugnacious chin, and sunken cheeks hideously smiling.
There was something in the ensemble at once brutal and ridiculous,
vigorous and pathetic.
Again I had not time to speak; for the hooligan in azure trousers
hurled his butt at the bear's feet, exclaiming: 'There's another for
you, Polak!—jumped from the bed, seized the broom, and poured upon
the vulture a torrent of Gott-verdummers, to which the latter
replied copiously and in kind. Then the red face bent within a few
inches of my own, and for the first time I saw that it had recently
been young—'I say I do your sweep for you,' it translated pleasantly.
I thanked it; and the vulture, exclaiming, 'Bon. Bon. Pas moi.
Surveillant. Harree faire pour tout le monde. Hee, hee'—rushed
off, followed by Harree and the tassel. Out of the corner of my eye I
watched the tall, ludicrous, extraordinary, almost proud .figure of the
bear stoop with quiet dignity, the musical fingers close with a
singular delicacy upon the moist, indescribable eighth-of-an-inch of
I did not know that this was a Delectable Mountain....
The clean-shaven man (who appeared to have been completely won over
by his smoke) and the fluffy gnome, who had completed the arrangement
of my paillasse, now entered into conversation with myself and
B.; the clean-shaven one seating himself in Harree's stead, the gnome
declining (on the ground that the bed was already sufficiently loaded)
to occupy the place left vacant by the tassel's exit, and leaning
against the drab, sweating, poisonous wall. He managed, however, to
call our attention to the shelf at B.'s head which he himself had
constructed, and promised me a similar luxury tout de suite. He
was a Russian, and had a wife and gosse in Paris. 'Je
m'ap-pelle Monsieur Au-guste à votre ser-vice'—and his gentle
pale eyes sparkled. The clean-shaven talked distinct and absolutely
perfect English. His name was Fritz. He was a Norwegian, a stoker on a
ship. 'You mustn't mind that feller that wanted you to sweep. He's
crazy. They call him John the Baigneur. He used to be the baigneur. Now
he's Maitre de Chambre.
They wanted me to take
it—I said, "F— it, I don't want it." Let him have it. That's no
kind of a job, every one complaining and on top of you morning till
night. "Let them that wants the job take it," I said. That crazy
Dutchman's been here for two years. They told him to get out and he
wouldn't, he was too fond of the booze' (I jumped at the slang) 'and
the girls. They took it away from John and give it to that little
Ree-shar feller, that doctor. That was a swell job he had, baigneur, too. All the bloody liquor you can drink and a girl every time you want
one. He ain't never had a girl in his life, that Ree-shar feller.' His
laughter was hard, clear, cynical. 'That Pompom, the little Belgian
feller was just here, he's a great one for the girls. He and Harree.
Always getting cabinot. I got it twice myself since I
All this time the enormous room was filling gradually with dirty
light. In the further end six figures were brooming furiously, yelling
to each other in the dust like demons. A seventh, Harree, was loping to
and fro splashing water from a pail and enveloping everything and
everybody in a ponderous and blasphemous fog of Gott-verdummers. Along three sides (with the exception, that is, of the nearer
end, which boasted the sole door) were laid, with their lengths at
right angles to the walls, at intervals of three or four feet,
something like forty paillasses. On each, with half a dozen
exceptions (where the occupants had not yet finished their coffee or
were on duty for the corvée), lay the headless body of a man
smothered in its blanket, only the boots showing.
The demons were working toward our end of the room. Harree had got
his broom and was assisting. Nearer and nearer they came; converging,
they united their separate heaps of filth in a loudly stinking single
mound at the door. Brooms were stacked against the wall in the corner.
The men strolled back to their paillasses.
Monsieur Auguste, whose French had not been able to keep pace with
Fritz's English, saw his chance, and proposed 'Main-te-nant que la
Chambre est tout propre, allons faire une pe-tite pro-me-nade, tous les
trois? Fritz understood perfectly, and rose, remarking as he
fingered his immaculate chin, 'Well, I guess I'll take a shave before
the bloody planton comes'—and Monsieur Auguste, B. and I
started down the room.
It was in shape oblong, about 80 feet by 40, unmistakably
ecclesiastical in feeling-two rows of wooden pillars, spaced at
intervals of fifteen feet, rose to a vaulted ceiling 25 or 3 0 feet
above the floor. As you stood with your back to the door, and faced
down the room, you had in the near right-hand corner (where the brooms
stood) six pails of urine. On the right-hand long wall, a little beyond
the angle of this corner, a few boards tacked together in any fashion
to make a two-sided screen four feet in height marked the position of a cabinet d'aisance,
composed of a small coverless tin pail identical
with the other six, and a board of the usual design which could be
placed on the pail or not as desired. The wooden floor in the
neighbourhood of the booth and pails was of a dark colour, obviously
owing to the continual overflow of their contents.
The right-hand long wall contained something like ten large windows,
of which the first was commanded by the somewhat primitive cabinet. There were no other windows in the remaining walls; or they had been
carefully rendered useless. In spite of this fact, the inhabitants had
contrived a couple of peep-holes—one in the door-end and one in the
left-hand long wall; the former commanding the gate by which I had
entered, the latter a portion of the street by which I had reached the
gate. The blocking of all windows on three sides had an obvious
significance: les hommes were not supposed to see anything which
went on in the world without; les hommes might, however, look
their fill on a little washing-shed, on a corner of what seemed to be
another wing of the building, and on a bleak, lifeless, abject
landscape of scrubby woods beyond—which constituted the view from the
ten windows on the right. The authorities had miscalculated a little in
one respect: a merest fraction of the barb-wire pen which began at the
corner of the above-mentioned building was visible from these windows,
which windows (I was told) were consequently thronged by fighting men
at the time of the girls' promenade. A planton, I was also told,
made it his business, by keeping les femmes out of this corner
of their cour at the point of the bayonet, to deprive them of the sight
of their admirers. In addition, it was pain sec or cabinot for any of either sex who were caught communicating with each other.
Moreover the promenades des hommes et des femmes occurred at,
roughly speaking, the same hour, so that an homme or femme who remained upstairs on the chance of getting a smile or a wave from
his or her girl or lover lost the promenade thereby....
We had in succession gazed from the windows, crossed the end of the
room, and started down the other side, Monsieur Auguste marching
between us—when suddenly B. exclaimed in English, 'Good morning! How
are you to-day?' And I looked across Monsieur Auguste, anticipating
another Harree or at least a Fritz. What was my surprise to see a spare
majestic figure of manifest refinement, immaculately apparelled in a
crisp albeit collarless shirt, carefully mended trousers in which the
remains of a crease still lingered, a threadbare but perfectly fitting
swallow-tail coat, and newly varnished (if somewhat ancient) shoes.
Indeed for the first time since my arrival at La Ferté I was confronted
by a perfect type: the apotheosis of injured nobility, the humiliated
victim of perfectly unfortunate circumstances, the utterly respectable
gentleman who has seen better days. There was about him, moreover,
something irretrievably English, nay even pathetically Victorian—it
was as if a page of Dickens was shaking my friend's hand. 'Count
Bragard, I want you to meet my friend Cummings'—he saluted me in
modulated and courteous accents of indisputable culture, gracefully
extending his pale hand. 'I have heard a great deal about you from B.,
and wanted very much to meet you. It is a pleasure to find a friend of
my friend B., some one congenial and intelligent in contrast to these
swine'—he indicated the room with a gesture of complete contempt. 'I
see you were strolling. Let us take a turn.' Monsieur Auguste said
tactfully, 'Je vais vous voir tout à l'heure, mes amis,' and
left us with an affectionate shake of the hand and a side-long glance
of jealousy and mistrust at B.'s respectable friend.
'You're looking pretty well to-day, Count Bragard,' B. said amiably.
'I do well enough,' the count answered. 'It is a frightful
strain—you of course realize that—for anyone who has been
accustomed to the decencies, let alone the luxuries, of life. This
filth'—he pronounced the word with indescribable bitterness—'this
herding of men like cattle they treat us no better than pigs here. The
fellows drop their dung in the very room where they sleep. What is one
to expect of a place like this? Ce n'est pas une existence—' his French was glib and faultless.
'I was telling my friend that you knew Cézanne,' said B. 'Being an
artist he was naturally much interested.'
Count Bragard stopped in astonishment, and withdrew his hands slowly
from the tails of his coat. 'Is it possible!' he exclaimed, in great
agitation. 'What an astonishing coincidence! I am myself a painter. You
perhaps noticed this badge—he indicated a button attached to his left
lapel, and I bent and read the words: On War Service. 'I always wear
it,' he said with a smile of faultless sorrow, and resumed his walk.
'They don't know what it means here, but I wear it all the same. I was
a special representative for the London Sphere at the front in
this war. I did the trenches and all that sort of thing. They paid me
well; I got fifteen pounds a week. And why not? I am an R.A. My
speciality was horses. I painted the finest horses in England, among
them the King's own entry in the last Derby. Do you know London?' We
said no. 'If you are ever in London, go to the' (I forget the name)
'Hotel—one of the best in town. It has a beautiful large bar,
exquisitely furnished in the very best taste. Anyone will tell you
where to find the It has one of my paintings over the bar:
Straight-jacket' (or some such name) 'The Marquis of —- 's horse, who
won last time the race was run. I was in America in 1910. You know
Cornelius Vanderbilt perhaps? I painted some of his horses. We were the
best of friends, Vanderbilt and I. I got handsome prices, you
understand, three, five, six thousand pounds. When I left, he gave me
this card—I have it here somewhere—' he again stopped, sought in
his breast-pocket a moment, and produced a visiting card. On one side I
read the name 'Cornelius Vanderbilt'—on the other, in bold
handwriting—to my very dear friend Count F. A. de Bragard' and a date.
'He hated to have me go.'
I was walking in a dream.
'Have you your sketch-books and paints with you? What a pity. I am
always intending to send to England for mine, but you know-one can't
paint in a place like this. It is impossible— all this dirt and these
filthy people—it stinks! Ugh!'
I forced myself to say: 'How did you happen to come here?'
He shrugged his shoulders. 'How indeed, you may well ask! I cannot
tell. you. It must have been some hideous mistake. As soon as I got
here I spoke to the Directeur and to the Surveillant. The Directeur
said he knew nothing about it; the
told me confidentially that it was a mistake on the part of the French
Government; that I would be out directly. He's not such a bad sort. So
I am waiting: every day I expect orders from the English Government for
my release. The whole thing is preposterous. I wrote to the Embassy and
told them so. As soon as I set foot outside this place, I shall sue the
French Government for ten thousand pounds for the loss of time it has
occasioned me. Imagine it—I had contracts with countless members of
The Lords—and the war came. Then I was sent to the front by the Sphere—-and here I am, every day costing me dear, rotting
away in this horrible place. The time I have wasted here has already
cost me a fortune.'
He paused directly in front of the door and spoke with solemnity: 'A
man might as well be dead.'
Scarcely had the words passed his lips when I almost jumped out of
my skin, for directly before us on the other side of the wall arose the
very noise which announced to Scrooge the approach of Marley's
ghost—a dismal clanking and rattling of chains. Had Marley's
transparent figure walked straight through the wall and up to the
Dickensian character at my side, I would have been less surprised than
I was by what actually happened.
The doors opened with an uncanny bang and in the bang stood a
fragile, minute, queer figure, remotely suggesting an old man. The
chief characteristic of the apparition was a certain disagreeable
nudity which resulted from a complete lack of all the accepted
appurtenances and prerogatives of old age. Its little stooping body,
helpless and brittle, bore with extraordinary difficulty a head of
absurd largeness, yet which moved on the fleshless neck with a horrible
agility. Dull eyes sat in the clean-shaven wrinkles of a face neatly
hopeless. At the knees a pair of hands hung, infantile in their
smallness. In the loose mouth a tiny cigarette had perched and was
solemnly smoking itself.
Suddenly the figure darted at me with a spiderlike entirety.
I felt myself lost.
A voice said mechanically from the vicinity of my feet:
faut prendre des douches'—I stared stupidly. The spectre was
poised before me; its averted eyes contemplated the window. 'Take your
bath,' it added as an afterthought, in English—'come with me.' It
turned suddenly. It hurried to the doorway. I followed. Its rapid,
deadly, doll-like bands shut and skilfully locked the doors in a
twinkling. 'Come,' its voice said.
It hurried before me down two dirty flights of narrow, mutilated
stairs. It turned left, and passed through an open door.
I found myself in the wet sunless air of morning.
To the right it hurried, following the wall of the building. I
pursued it mechanically. At the comer, which I had seen from the window
upstairs, the barbed-wire fence eight feet in height began. The thing
paused, produced a key, and unlocked a gate. The first three or four
feet of wire swung inward. He entered, I after him.
In a flash the gate was locked behind me, and I was following along
a wall at right angles to the first. I strode after the thing. A moment
before I had been walking in a free world: now I was again a prisoner.
The sky was still over me, the clammy morning caressed me; but walls of
wire and stone told me that my instant of freedom had departed. I was
in fact traversing a lane no wider than the gate; on my left,
barbed-wire separated me from the famous cour in which les femmes se
promènent-—a rectangle about 50 feet deep and 200 long, with a
stone wall at the farther end of it and otherwise surrounded by wire;
—on my right, grey sameness of stone, the ennui of the regular and
the perpendicular, the ponderous ferocity of silence....
I had taken automatically some six or eight steps in pursuit of the
fleeing spectre when, right over my head, the grey stone curdled with a
female darkness; the hard and the angular softening in a putrescent
explosion of thick wriggling laughter. I started, looked up, and
encountered a window stuffed with four savage fragments of crowding
Face: four livid, shaggy disks focusing hungrily; four pairs of uncouth
eyes rapidly smouldering; eight lips shaking in a toothless and viscous
titter. Suddenly above and behind these terrors rose a single horror of
beauty—a crisp, vital head, a young ivory actual face, a night of
firm, alive, icy hair, a white large frightful smile.
. . . The thing was crying two or three paces in front of me:
'Come!' The heads had vanished as by magic.
I dived forward; followed through a little door in the wall into a
room about fifteen feet square, occupied by a small stove, a pile of
wood, and a ladder. He plunged through another even smaller door, into
a bleak rectangular place, where I was confronted on the left by a
large tin bath and on the right by ten wooden tubs, each about a yard
in diameter, set in a row against the wall. 'Undress,' commanded the
spectre. I did so. 'Go into the first one.' I climbed into a tub. 'You
shall pull the string,' the spectre said, hurriedly throwing his
cigarette into a corner. I stared upward, and discovered a string
dangling from a kind of reservoir over my head: I pulled: and was
saluted by a stabbing crash of icy water. I leaped from the tub. 'Here
is your napkin. Make dry yourself'—he handed me a piece of cloth a
little bigger than a handkerchief. 'Hurree.' I donned my clothes, wet
and shivering and altogether miserable. 'Good. Come now!' I followed
him, through the room with the stove, into the barb-wire lane. A hoarse
shout rose from the yard—which was filled with women, girls,
children, and a baby or two. I thought I recognized one of the four
terrors who had saluted me from the window, in a girl of 18 with a
soiled, slobby body huddling beneath its. dingy dress; her bony
shoulders stifled in a shawl upon which excremental hair limply
spouted; a huge empty mouth; and a red nose, sticking between the
bluish cheeks that shook with spasms of coughing. Just inside the wire
a figure reminiscent of Gré, gun on shoulder, revolver on hip, moved
The apparition hurried me through the gate and along the wall into
the building, where instead of mounting the stairs he pointed down a
long gloomy corridor with a square of light at the end of it, saying
rapidly, 'Go to the promenade'—and vanished.
With the laughter of the Five still ringing in my ears, and no very
clear conception of the meaning of existence, I stumbled down the
corridor, bumping squarely into a beefy figure with a bull's neck and
the familiar revolver, who demanded furiously: 'Qu'est-ce que vous
faites là? Nom de Dieu!'—'Pardon. Les douches,' I answered,
quelled by the collision.—He demanded in wrathy French, 'Who took you
to the douches?'-—For a moment I was at a complete loss—then
Fritz's remark about the new baigneur flashed through my mind:
'Ree-shar,' I answered calmly.—The bull snorted satisfactorily. 'Get
into the cour and hurry up about it,' he ordered—-'C'est par là?
' I inquired politely.—He stared at me contemptuously without
answering; so I took it upon myself to use the nearest door, hoping
that he would have the decency not to shoot me. I had no sooner crossed
the threshold when I found myself once more in the welcome air; and not
ten paces away I espied B. peacefully lounging, with some thirty
others, within a cour about one quarter the size of the women's. I
marched up to a little dingy gate in the barbed-wire fence, and was
hunting for the latch (as no padlock was in evidence) when a scared
voice cried loudly, 'Qu'est-ce que vous faites là!' and I found
myself stupidly looking into a rifle. B., Fritz, Harree, Pompom,
Monsieur Auguste, The Bear, and last but not least Count de Bragard
immediately informed the trembling planton that I was a Nouveau
who had just returned from the douches to which I had been
escorted by Monsieur Reeshar, and that I should be admitted to the cour by all means. The cautious watcher of the skies was not
however to be fooled by any such fol-de-rol and stood his ground.
Fortunately at this point the beefy planton yelled from the
doorway, 'Let him in.' And I was accordingly let in, to the
gratification of my friends, and against the better judgment of the
guardian of the cour, who muttered something about having more
than enough to do already.
I had not been mistaken as to the size of the men's yard: it was
certainly not more than twenty yards deep and fifteen wide. By the
distinctness with which the shouts of les femmes reached my
ears, I perceived that the two cours adjoined. They were
separated by a stone wall ten feet in height, which I had already
remarked (while en route to les douches) as forming one end of
the cour des femmes. The men's cour had another stone
wall slightly higher than the first, and which ran parallel to it; the
two remaining sides, which were properly ends, were made by the
familiar fil-de-fer barbelé.
The furniture of the
cour was simple: in the middle of the
further end, a wooden sentry-box was placed just inside the wire; a
curious contrivance, which I discovered to be a sister to the booth
upstairs, graced, the wall on the left which separated the two cours
, while further up on this wall a horizontal iron bar projected from
the stone at a height of seven feet and was supported at its other end
by a wooden post, the idea apparently being to give the prisoners a
little taste of gymnastic; a minute wooden shed filled the right upper
corner and served secondarily as a very partial shelter for les
hommes and primarily as a stable for an extraordinary water-wagon,
composed of a wooden barrel on two wheels with shafts which could not
possibly accommodate anything larger than a diminutive donkey (but in
which I myself was to walk not infrequently, as it proved) ; parallel
to the second stone wall, but at a safe distance from it, stretched a
couple of iron girders serving as a barbarously cold seat for any
unfortunate who could not remain on his feet the entire time; on the
ground close by the shed lay amusement devices numbers 2 and 3—a huge
iron cannon-ball and the six-foot iron axle of a departed wagon—for
testing the strength of the prisoners and beguiling any time which
might lie heavily on their hands after they had regaled themselves with
the horizontal bar; and finally, a dozen mangy apple-trees, fighting
for their very lives in the angry soil, proclaimed to all the world
that the cour itself was in reality a verger.
'Les pommiers sont pleins de pommes;
Allons au verger, Simone.' ...
A description of the
cour would be incomplete without an
enumeration of the manifold duties of the planton in charge,
which were as follows: to prevent the men from using the horizontal
bar, except for chinning, since if you swung yourself upon it you could
look over the wall into the women's cour; to see that no one
threw anything over the wall into said cour; to dodge the
cannon-ball which had a mysterious habit of taking advantage of the
slope of the ground and bounding along at a prodigious rate of speed
straight for the sentry-box; to watch closely anyone who inhabited the cabinet d'aisance,
lest be should make use of it to vault over the
wall; to see that no one stood on the girders, for a similar reason; to
keep watch over anyone who entered the shed; to see that every one
urinated properly against the wall in the general vicinity of the cabinet;
to protect the apple-trees into which well-aimed pieces of
wood and stone were continually flying and dislodging the sacred fruit;
to mind that no one entered or exited by the gate in the upper fence
without authority: to report any signs, words, tokens, or other
immoralities exchanged by prisoners with girls sitting in the windows
of the women's wing (it was from one of these windows that I had
recently received my salutation), also names of said girls, it being défendu
to exhibit any part of the female person at a window while
the males were on promenade; to quell all rixes and especially
to prevent people from using the wagon axle as a weapon of defence or
offence; and last, to keep an eye on the balayeur when he and
his wheelbarrow made use of a secondary gate situated in the fence at
the further end, not far from the sentry-box, to dump themselves.
Having acquainted me with the various
the activities of a man on promenade, my friends proceeded to enliven
the otherwise somewhat tedious morning by shattering one after another
all rules and regulations. Fritz, having chinned himself fifteen times,
suddenly appeared astride of the bar, evoking a reprimand; Pompom
bowled the planton with the cannon-ball, apologizing in profuse
and vile French; Harree the Hollander tossed the wagon-axle lightly
half the length of the cour, missing The Bear by an inch; The
Bear bided his time and cleverly hurled a large stick into one of the
holy trees, bringing to the ground a withered apple for which at least
twenty people fought for several minutes; and so on. The most open
gestures were indulged in for the benefit of several girls who had
braved the official wrath and were enjoying the morning at their
windows. The girders were used as a race-track. The beams supporting
the shed-room were shinned. The water-wagon was dislocated from its
proper position. The cabinet and urinal were misused. The gate
was continually admitting and emitting persons who said they were
thirsty, and must get a drink at a tub of water which stood around the
comer. A letter was surreptitiously thrown over the wall into the cour des femmes.
who suffered all these indignities was a solemn
youth with wise eyes situated very far apart in a mealy expressionless
ellipse of face, to the lower end of which clung a piece of down,
exactly like a feather sticking to an egg. The rest of him was fairly
normal with the exception of his hands, which were not mates; the left
being considerably larger, and made of wood.
I was at first somewhat startled by this eccentricity; but soon
learned that with the exception of two or three, who formed the Surveillant's
permanent staff and of whom the beefy one was a
shining example, all the plantons were supposed to be unhealthy;
they were indeed réformés whom le gouvernement français
sent from time to time to La Ferté and similar institutions for a
little outing, and as soon as they had recovered their health under
these salubrious influences they were shipped back to do their bit for
world-safety, democracy, freedom, etc., in the trenches. I also learned
that of all the ways of attaining cabinot by far the
simplest was to apply to a planton, particularly to a permanent planton,
say the beefy one (who was reputed to be peculiarly touchy
on this point) the term embusqué. This method never failed. To
its efficacy many of les hommes, and more of the girls (by whom
the plantons, owing to their habit of taking advantage of the
weaker sex at every opportunity, were even more despised) attested by
not infrequent spasms of consumptive coughing, which could be plainly
heard from the further end of one cour to the other.
In a little over two hours I learned an astonishing lot about La
Ferté itself: it was a co-educational receiving station whither were
sent from various parts of France (a) males suspected of espionnage
females of a well-known type
trouvaient dans la zone des armées. It was pointed out to me that
the task of finding such members of the human race was pas
difficile: in the case of the men, any foreigner would do, provided
his country was neutral (e.g. Holland) ; as for the girls, inasmuch as
the armies of the Allies were continually retreating, the zone des
armées (particularly in the case of Belgium) was always including
new cities, whose petites femmes became automatically subject to
arrest. It was not to be supposed that all the women of La Ferté were putains;
there were a large number of
wives of prisoners, who met their husbands at specified times on the
floor below the men's quarters, whither man and woman were duly and
separately conducted by plantons. In this case no charges had
been preferred against the women; they were voluntary prisoners, who
had preferred to freedom this living in proximity to their husbands.
Many of them had children; some babies. In addition there were certain femmes honnêtes
whose nationality, as in the case of the men, had
cost them their liberty; Margherite the blanchisseuse, for
example, was a German.
La Ferté Macé was not, properly speaking, a prison, but a
Camp de Triage:
that is to say, persons sent to it were held
for a Commission, composed of an official, an avocat, and a capitaine de gendarmerie,
which inspected the camp and passed upon
each case in turn for the purpose of determining the guiltiness of the
suspected party. If the latter were found guilty by the commission, he
or she was sent off to a regular prison camp pour la durée de la
guerre; if not guilty, he or she was (in theory) set free. The
Commission came to La Ferté once every three months. It should be added
that there were prisonniers who had passed the Commission two,
three, four and even five times, without any appreciable result; there
were prisonnières who had remained in La. Ferté a year, and even
The authorities at La Ferté consisted of the
general overlord, the Surveillant, who had the plantons under him and was responsible to the
Directeur for the
administration of the camp, and the Gestionnaire (who kept the
accounts). As assistant, the Surveillant had a mail clerk who
acted as translator on occasion. Twice week the camp was visited by a
regular French army doctor (médecin major) who was supposed to
prescribe in severe cases and to give the women venereal inspection at
regular intervals. The daily routine of attending to minor ailments and
injuries was in the hands of Monsieur Ree-shar (Richard), who knew
probably less about medicine than any man living and was an ordinary prisonnier
like all of us, but whose impeccable conduct merited
cosy quarters. A balayeur was appointed from time to time by the Surveillant,
acting for the
from the inhabitants
of La Ferté, as was also a cook's assistant. The regular cook was a
fixture, and a boche like the other fixtures, Margherite and
Richard. This fact might seem curious were it not that the manner,
appearance and actions of the Directeur himself proved beyond a
shadow of a doubt that he was all which the term boche could
'He's a son of a bitch,' B. said heartily. 'They took me up to him
when I came two days ago. As soon as he saw me he bellowed: "Imbécile et inchrétien!";
then he called me a great lot of other
things, including Shame of my country, Traitor to the sacred pause of
liberty, Contemptible coward and Vile, sneaking spy. When he got all
through I said, "Je ne comprends pas le français." You
should have seen him then.'
Separation of the sexes was enforced, not, it is true, with success,
but with a commendable ferocity. The punishments for both men and girls
were pain sec and cabinot.
'What on earth is
cabinot?' I demanded.
There were various
cabinots: each sex had its regular
cabinot, and there were certain extra ones. B. knew all about them
from Harree and Pompom, who spent nearly all their time in the cabinot. They were rooms about nine feet square and six feet high.
There was no light and no floor, and the ground (three were on the
ground floor) was always wet and often a good many inches under water.
The occupant on entering was searched for tobacco, deprived of his or
her paillasse and blanket, and invited to sleep on the ground on
some planks. One didn't need to write a letter to a member of the
opposite sex to get cabinot, or even to call a planton embusqué—there was a woman, a foreigner, who, instead of sending a
letter to her embassy through the bureau (where all letters were
read by the mail clerk to make sure that they said nothing disagreeable
about the authorities or conditions of La Ferté) tried to smuggle it
outside, and attrapait vingt-huit jours de cabinot. She had
previously written three times, handing the letters to the Surveillant, as per regulations, and had received no reply. Fritz,
who had no idea why he was arrested and was crazy to get in touch with
his embassy, had likewise written several letters, taking the utmost
care to state the facts only and always handing them in; but he had
never received a word in return. The obvious inference was that letters
from a foreigner to his embassy were duly accepted by the Surveillant, but rarely if ever left La Ferté.
B. and I were conversing merrily à propos the God-sent miracle of
our escape from Vingt-et-Un, when a benign-faced personage of
about fifty with sparse greyish hair and a Benjamin Franklin expression
appeared on the other side of the fence, from the direction of the door
through which I had passed after bumping the beefy bull. 'Planton,' it cried heavily to the wooden-handed one.
'Deux hommes pour aller
chercher l'eau.' Harree and Pompom were already at the gate with
the archaic water-wagon, the former pushing from behind and the latter
in the shafts. The guardian of the cour walked up and opened the
gate for them, after ascertaining that another planton was
waiting at the corner of the building to escort them on their mission.
A little way from the cour, the stone wall which formed one of
its boundaries (and which ran parallel to the other stone wall dividing
the two cours) met the prison building; and here was a huge
double-door, twice padlocked, through which the water-seekers passed on
to the street. There was a sort of hydrant up the street a few hundred
yards, I was told. The cook (Benjamin F. that is) required from three
to six wagonfuls of water twice a day, and in reward for the labour
involved in its capture was in the habit of giving a cup of coffee to
the captors. I resolved that I would seek water at the earliest
Harree and Pompom had completed their third and final trip and
returned from the kitchen, smacking their lips and wiping their mouths
with the backs of their hands. I was gazing airily into the muddy sky,
when a roar issued from the doorway:
'Montez les hommes!'
It was the beefy-necked. We filed from the
cour, through the
door, past a little window which I was told belonged to the kitchen,
down the clammy corridor, up the three flights of stairs, to the door
of The Enormous Room. Padlocks were unlocked, chains rattled, and the
door thrown open. We entered. The Enormous Room received us in silence.
The door was slammed and locked behind us by. the planton, whom
we could hear descending the gnarled and filthy stairs.
In the course of a half-hour, which time as I was informed
intervened between the just-ended morning promenade and the noon meal
which was the next thing on the programme, I gleaned considerable
information concerning the daily schedule of La Ferté. A typical day
was divided by planton—-cries as follows:
(1 ) 'Café.'
At 5.30 every morning a
plantons mounted to the room. One man descended to the kitchen, got
a pail of coffee, and brought it up.
(2) 'Corvée d'eau.'
From time to time the occupants of the
room chose one of their number to be 'maître de chambre,' or
roughly speaking Boss. 'When the planton opened the door,
allowing the coffee-getter to descend, it was the duty of the maître
de chambre to rouse a certain number of the men (generally six, the
occupants of the room being taken in rotation), who forthwith carried
the pails of urine and excrement to the door. Upon the arrival of
coffee, the maître de chambre and his crew 'descended' said
pails, together with a few clean pails for water, to the ground floor;
where a planton was in readiness to escort them to a sort of
sewer situated a few yards beyond the cour des femmes. Here the
full pails were dumped: with the exception, occasionally, of one or two
pails of urine which the Surveillant might direct to be thrown
on the Directeur's little garden in which it was rumoured he was
growing a rose for his daughter. From the sewer the Corvée gang
were escorted to a pump, where they filled their water pails. They then
mounted to the room, where the emptied pails were ranged against the
wall beside the door, with the exception of one which was returned to
the cabinet. The water pails were placed hard by. The door was
now locked, and the planton descended.
'While the men selected for
had been performing their
duties the other occupants had been enjoying coffee. The corvée men now joined them. The
maître de chambre
usually allowed about
fifteen minutes for himself and his crew to consume their breakfast. He
(3) 'Nettoyage de Chambre.'
Some one sprinkled the floor with
water from one of the pails which had been just brought up. The other
members of the crew swept the room, fusing their separate piles of
filth at the door. This process consumed something like a half-hour.
(4) The sweeping completed, the men had nothing more to do till 7.30,
at which hour a
planton mounted, announcing 'A la
promenade les hommes.'
crew now carried down the
product of their late labours. The other occupants descended or not
directly to the cour, according to their tastes; morning
promenade being optional. At 9.30 the planton demanded:
(5) 'Montez les hommes.'
Those who had taken advantage
of the morning stroll were brought upstairs to the room, the corvée
men descended the excrement which had accumulated during promenade, and
everybody was thereupon locked in for a half-hour, or until ten
o'clock, when a planton again mounted and cried:
(6) 'A la soupe les hommes.'
Every one descended to a wing of
the building opposite the cour des hommes, where the noon meal
was enjoyed until 10.30 or thereabouts, when the order:
(7) 'Tout le monde en haut'
was given. There was a digestive
interval of two and a half hours spent in the room. At one o'clock a planton
(8) 'Les hommes à la promenade'
(in which case the afternoon
promenade was a matter of choice) or 'Tout le monde en bas,' whereat every one had to descend, willy-nilly,
pommes'—potatoes (which constituted the
pièce de résistance
of 'la soupe')
being peeled and sliced on alternate days by the
men and the girls. At 3.30:
(9) 'Tout le monde en haut'
was again given, the world
mounted, the corvée crew descended excrement, and every one was
then locked in till 4, at which hour a planton arrived to
(10) 'A la soupe,'
that is to say the evening meal, or
dinner. After dinner anyone who wished might go on promenade for an
hour; those who wished might return to the room. At eight o'clock the planton
made a final inspection and pronounced:
(11) 'Lumières éteintes.'
The most terrible cry of all, and which was not included in the
regular programme of planton-cries, consisted of the
la douche les hommes'—when all, sick, dead and dying not
excepted, descended to the baths. Although les douches came only once in
such was the terror they
inspired that it was necessary for the planton to hunt under paillasses
for people who would have preferred death itself.
Upon remarking that
must be excessively
disagreeable, I was informed that it had its bright side, viz. that in
going to and from the sewer one could easily exchange a furtive signal
with the women who always took pains to be at their windows at that
moment. Influenced perhaps by this, Harree and Pompom were in the habit
of doing their friends' corvées for a consideration. The girls,
I was further instructed, had their corvée (as well as their
meals) just after the men; and the miraculous stupidity of the plantons had been known to result in the coincidence of the two.
At this point somebody asked me how I had enjoyed my
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
'A la soupe les hommes.'
The cry was lost in a tremendous confusion, a reckless
thither-and-hithering of humanity, every one trying to be at the door,
spoon in hand, before his neighbour. B. said calmly, extracting his own
spoon from beneath his paillasse, on which we were seated:
'They'll give you yours downstairs, and when you get it you want to
hide it or it'll be pinched'—and in company with Monsieur Bragard,
who bad refused the morning promenade, and whose gentility would not
permit him to hurry when it was a question of such a low craving as
hunger, we joined the dancing, roaring throng at the door. I was not
too famished myself to be unimpressed by the instantaneous change which
had come over The Enormous Room's occupants. Never did Circe herself
cast upon men so bestial an enchantment. Among these faces convulsed
with. utter animalism I scarcely recognized my various acquaintances.
The transformation produced by the planton's shout was not
merely amazing; it was uncanny, and not a little thrilling. These eyes
bubbling with lust, obscene grins sprouting from contorted lips, bodies
unclenching and clenching in unctuous gestures of complete savagery,
convinced me by a certain insane beauty. Before the arbiter of their
destinies some thirty creatures, hideous and authentic, poised,
cohering in a sole chaos of desire; a fluent and numerous cluster of
vital inhumanity. As I contemplated this ferocious and uncouth miracle,
this beautiful manifestation of the sinister alchemy of hunger, I felt
that the last vestige of individualism was about utterly to disappear,
wholly abolished in a gambolling and wallowing throb.
The beefy-neck bellowed:
'Est-ce que vous êtes tous ici?
A shrill roar of language answered. He looked contemptuously around
him, upon the thirty clamouring faces each of which wanted to eat
him—puttees, revolver and all. Then he cried:
Squirming, jostling, fighting, roaring, we poured slowly through the
doorway. Ridiculously. Horribly. I felt like a glorious microbe in
huge, absurd din irrevocably swathed. B. was beside me. A little ahead
Monsieur Auguste's voice protested. Count Bragard brought up the rear.
When we reached the corridor nearly all the breath was knocked out
of me. The corridor being wider than the stairs allowed me to inhale
and look around. B. was yelling in my ear:
'Look at the Hollanders and the Belgians! They're always ahead when
it comes to food!'
Sure enough: John the Bathman, Harree and Pompom were leading this
extraordinary procession. Fritz was right behind them, however, and
pressing the leaders hard. I heard Monsieur Auguste crying in his
'Si tout-le-monde veut marcher dou-ce-ment nous allons ar-ri-ver
plus tôt! Il faut pas faire comme Ça!'
Then suddenly the roar ceased. The mêlée integrated. We were
marching in orderly ranks. B. said:
At the end of the corridor, opposite the kitchen window, there was a
flight of stairs. On the third stair from the bottom stood (teetering a
little slowly back and forth, his lean hands joined behind him and
twitching regularly, a képi tilted forward on his cadaverous head so
that its visor almost hid the weak eyes sunkenly peering from under
droopy eyebrows, his pompous rooster-like body immaculately attired in
a shiny uniform, his puttees sleeked, his croix polished) —The
Fencer. There was a renovated look about him which made me laugh. Also
his pose was ludicrously suggestive of Napoleon reviewing the armies of
Our column's first rank moved by him. I expected it to continue
ahead through the door and into the open air, as I had myself done in
going from les douches to le cour; but it turned a sharp
right and then sharp left, and I perceived a short hall, almost hidden
by the stairs. In a moment I had passed the Fencer myself and entered
the hall. In another moment I was in a room, pretty nearly square,
filled with rows of pillars. On turning into the hall the column had
come almost to a standstill. I saw now that the reason for this
slowing-down lay in the fact that on entering the room every man in
turn passed a table and received a piece of bread from the chef. When
B. and I came opposite the table the dispenser of bread smiled
pleasantly and nodded to B., then selected a large hunk and pushed it
rapidly into B.'s hands with an air of doing something which be
shouldn't. B. introduced me, whereupon the smile and selection was
'He thinks I'm a German,' B. explained in a whisper, 'and that you
are a German too.' Then aloud, to the cook: 'My friend here needs a
spoon. He just got here this morning and they haven't given him one.'
The excellent person at the bread table hereupon said to me: 'You
shall go to the window and say I tell you to ask for spoon and you will
catch one spoon'—and I broke through the waiting line, approached the
kitchen-window, and demanded of a roguish face within:
'Une cuillère, s'il vous plait?
The roguish face, which had been singing in a high faint voice to
itself, replied critically but not unkindly:
'Vous êtes un nouveau?
I said that I was, that I had arrived late last night.
It disappeared, reappeared, and handed me a tin spoon and cup,
'Vous n'avez pas de tasse?'—'Non,'
'Tiens. Prends ça. vite.'
Nodding in the direction of the
standing all this time on the stairs behind me.
I had expected from the cook's phrase that something would be thrown
at me which I should have to catch, and was accordingly somewhat
relieved at the true state of affairs. On re-entering the salle à
manger I was greeted by many cries and wavings, and looking in
their direction perceived tout le monde uproariously seated at
wooden benches which were placed on either side of an enormous wooden
table. There was a tiny gap in one bench where a place had been saved
for me by B. with the assistance of Monsieur Auguste, Count Bragard,
Harree and several other fellow-convicts. In a moment I had straddled
the bench and was occupying the gap, spoon and cup in hand, and ready
The din was perfectly terrific. It had a minutely large quality.
Here and there, in a kind of sonal darkness, solid sincere
unintelligible absurd wisps of profanity heavily flickered. Optically
the phenomenon was equally remarkable: seated waggingly swaying
corpse-like figures, swaggering, pounding with their little spoons,
roaring hoarse unkempt. Evidently Monsieur le Surveillant had
been forgotten. All at once the roar bulged unbearably. The roguish
man, followed by the chef himself, entered with a suffering
waddle, each of them bearing a huge bowl of steaming something. At
least six people immediately rose, gesturing and imploring: 'Ici'—'Mais non, ici'—'Mettez
The bearers plumped their burdens carefully down, one at the head of
the table and one in the middle. The men opposite the bowls stood up.
Every man seized the empty plate in front of him and shoved it into his
neighbour's hand; the plates moved toward the bowls, were filled amid
uncouth protestations and accusations—'Mettez plus que
ça'—'C'est pas juste, alors'—'Donnez-moi encore des pommes'—'Nom
de Dieu, il n'y en a pas assez'—Cochon, qu'est-ce qu'il veut?'
—'Shut up'—'Gottverdummer'—and returned one by one. As each man
received his own, he fell upon it with a sudden guzzle. Eventually, in
front of me, solemnly sat a faintly-smoking urine-coloured circular
broth, in which soggily hung half-suspendcd slabs of raw potato.
Following the example of my neighbours, I too addressed myself to La
Soupe. I found her luke-warm, completely flavourless. I examined
the hunk of bread. It was almost bluish in colour; in taste mouldy,
slightly sour. 'If you crumb some into the soup,' remarked B., who had
been studying my reactions from the corner of his eye, 'they both taste
better.' I tried the experiment. It was a complete success. At least
one felt as if one were getting nourishment. Between gulps I smelled
the bread furtively. It smelled rather much like an old attic in which
kites and other toys gradually are forgotten in a gentle darkness.
B. and I were finishing our soup together when behind and somewhat
to the left there came the noise of a lock being manipulated. I turned
and saw in one corner of the salle à manger a little
door, shaking mysteriously. Finally it was thrown open, revealing a
sort of minute bar and a little closet filled with what appeared to be
groceries and tobacco; and behind the bar, standing in the closet, a
husky competent-looking lady. 'It's the canteen,' B. said. We rose,
spoon in hand and breadhunk stuck on spoon, and made our way to the
lady. I had, naturally, no money; but B. reassured me that before the
day was over I should see the Gestionnaire and make
arrangements for drawing on the supply of ready cash which the
gendarmes who took me from Gré bad confided to the Surveillant's care;
eventually I could also draw on my account with
Norton-Harjes in Paris; meantime he had quelques sous which
might well go into chocolat and cigarettes. The large lady had a
pleasant quietness about her, a sort of simplicity, which made me
extremely desirous of complying with B.'s suggestion. Incidentally I
was feeling somewhat uncertain in the region of the stomach, due to the
unique quality of the lunch which I had just enjoyed, and I brightened
at the thought of anything as solid as chocolat. Accordingly we
purchased (or rather B. did) a paquet jaune and a cake of
something which was not Menier. And the remaining sous we
squandered on a glass apiece of red acrid pinard, gravely and
with great happiness pledging the hostess of the occasion and then each
With the exception of ourselves hardly anyone patronized the
canteen, noting which I felt somewhat conspicuous. When, however,
Harree, Pompom and John the Bathman came rushing up and demanded
cigarettes my fears were dispelled. Moreover the pinard was excellent.
'Come on! Arrange yourselves!' the bull-neck cried hoarsely as the
five of us were lighting up; and we joined the line of fellow-prisoners
with their breads and spoons, gaping, belching, trumpeting fraternally,
by the doorway.
'Tout le monde en haut!'
Slowly we fled through the tiny hall, past the stairs (empty now of
their Napoleonic burden), down the corridor, up the creaking, gnarled,
damp flights, and (after the inevitable pause in which the escort
rattled chains and locks) into The Enormous Room.
This would be about ten-thirty.
Just what I tasted, did, smelled, saw and heard, not to mention
touched, between ten-thirty and the completion of the evening meal
(otherwise the four-o'clock soup) I am quite at a loss to say. 'Whether
it was that glass of pinard (plus or rather times the
astonishing exhaustion bequeathed me by my journey of the day before)
which caused me to enter temporarily the gates of forgetfulness, or
whether the sheer excitement attendant upon my ultra-novel surroundings
proved too much for an indispensable part of my so-called mind—I do
not in the least know. I am fairly certain that I went on afternoon
promenade. After which I must surely have mounted to await my supper in
The Enormous Room. Whence (after the due and proper interval) I
doubtless descended to the clutches of La Soupe Extraordinaire ... yes, for I perfectly recall the cry which made me suddenly to re-enter
the dimension of distinctness ... and, by Jove, I had just finished a
glass of pinard ... when we heard—
'A la promenade,'. . .
we issued en queue,
firmly grasping our spoons and bread,
through the dining-room door. Turning right we were emitted, by the
door opposite the kitchen, from the building itself into the open air.
A few steps and we passed through the little gate in the barb-wire
fence of the cour.
Greatly refreshed by my second introduction to the canteen, and with
the digestion of the somewhat extraordinary evening meal apparently
assured, I gazed almost intelligently around me. Count Bragard had
declined the evening promenade in favour of The Enormous Room, but I
perceived in the crowd the now familiar faces of the three
Hollanders—John, Harree and Pompom—likewise of The Bear, Monsieur
Auguste, and Fritz. In the course of the next hour I had become, if not
personally, at least optically, acquainted with nearly a dozen others.
One was a queer-looking, almost infantile man of perhaps thirty-five
who wore a black vest, a pair of threadbare pants, a collarless striped
shirt open at the neck with a gold stud therein, a cap slightly too
large pulled down so that the visor almost hid his prominent eyebrows
if not his tiny eyes, and something approximating sneakers. His
expression was imitative and vacant. He stuck to Fritz most of the
time, and took pains—when a girt leaned from her window—to betray a
manliness of demeanour which contrasted absurdly with his mentor's
naturally athletic bearing. He tried to speak (and evidently thought he
spoke) English, or rather English words; but with the exception of a
few obscenities pronounced in a surprisingly natural manner his
vocabulary gave him considerable difficulty. Even when he and Fritz
exchanged views, as they frequently did, in Danish, a certain
linguistic awkwardness persisted; yielding the impression that to give
or receive an idea entailed a tremendous effort of the intelligence. He
was extremely vain, and indeed struck poses whenever he got a chance.
He was also good-natured—stupidly so. It might be said of him that he
never knew defeat; since if, after staggering a few moments under the
weight of the bar which Fritz raised and lowered with ease fourteen
times under the stimulus of a female gaze, the little man fell suddenly
to earth with his burden, not a trace of discomfiture could be seen
upon his small visage—he seemed, on the contrary, well pleased with
himself, and the subsequent pose which his small body adopted demanded
congratulations. When he stuck his chest up or out, he looked a trifle
like a bantam rooster. When he tagged Fritz he resembled a rather
brittle monkey, a monkey on a stick perhaps, capable of brief and stiff
antics. His name was Jan.
On the huge beam of iron, sitting somewhat beautifully all by
himself, I noticed somebody with pink cheeks and blue eyes, in a dark
suit of neatly kept clothes, with a small cap on his head. His
demeanour, in contrast to the other occupants of the cour, was
noticeably inconspicuous. In his poise lived an almost brilliant
quietness. His eyes were remarkably sensitive. They were apparently
anxious not to see people and things. He impressed me at once by a
shyness which was completely deerlike. Possibly he was afraid. Nobody
knew him or anything about him. I do not remember when we devised the
name, but B. and I referred to him as The Silent Man.
Somewhat overawed by the animals Harree and Pompom (but nevertheless
managing to overawe a goodly portion of his fellow-captives), an
extraordinary human being paced the cour. On gazing for the first time
directly at him I experienced a feeling of nausea. A figure inclined to
corpulence, dressed with care, remarkable only above the neck—and
then what a head! It was large, and had a copious mop of limp hair
combed back from the high forehead-hair of a, disagreeable blonde tint,
dutch-cut behind, falling over the pinkish soft neck almost to the
shoulders. In this pianist's or artist's hair, which shook en masse
when the owner walked, two large and outstanding and altogether brutal
white ears tried to hide themselves. The face, a cross between classic
Greek and Jew, had a Reynard expression, something distinctly wily and
perfectly disagreeable. And equally with the hair blonde moustache—or
rather moustachios projectingly important—waved beneath the prominent
nostrils, and served to partially conceal the pallid mouth, weak and
large, whose lips assumed from time to time a smile which had something
almost foetal about it. Over the even weaker chin was disposed a blonde
goatee. The cheeks were fatty. The continually perspiring forehead
exhibited innumerable pinkish pock-marks. In conversing with a
companion this being emitted a disgusting smoothness, his very gestures
were oily like his skin. He wore a pair of bloated wristless hands, the
knuckles lost in fat, with which he smoothed. the air from time to
time. He was speaking low and effortless French, completely absorbed in
the developing ideas which issued fluently from his moustachios. About
him there clung an aura of cringing. His hair, whiskers and neck looked
as if they were trick neck, whiskers and hair, as if they might at any
moment suddenly disintegrate, as if the smoothness of his eloquence
alone kept them in place.
We called him Judas.
Beside him, clumsily keeping the pace but not the step, was a
tallish effeminate person whose immaculate funereal suit hung loosely
upon an aged and hurrying anatomy. He wore a black big cap on top of
his haggard and remarkably clean-shaven face, the most prominent
feature of which was a red nose which sniffed a little now and then as
if its owner was suffering from a severe cold. This person emanated
age, neatness and despair. Aside from the nose, which compelled
immediate attention, his face consisted of a few large planes loosely
juxtaposed and registering pathos. His motions were without grace. He
had a certain refinement. He could not have been more than forty-five.
There was worry on every inch of him. Possibly he thought that he might
die. B. said, 'He's a Belgian, a friend of Count Bragard, and his name
is Monsieur Pet-airs.' From time to time Monsieur Petairs remarked
something delicately and pettishly in a gentle and weak voice. His
Adam's-apple, at such moments, jumped about in a longish, slack,
wrinkled, skinny neck which was like the neck of a turkey. To this
turkey the approach of Thanksgiving inspired dread. From time to time
M. Petairs looked about him sidewise as if he expected to see a
hatchet. His hands were claws, kind, awkward and nervous. They
twitched. The bony and wrinkled things looked as if they would like to
close quickly upon a throat.
B. called my attention to a figure squatting in the middle of the
cour with his broad back against one of the more miserable trees. This
figure was clothed in a remarkably picturesque manner- it wore a dark
sombrerolike hat with a large drooping brim, a bright red gipsy shirt
of some remarkably fine material with huge sleeves loosely falling, and
baggy corduroy trousers whence escaped two brown shapely naked feet. On
moving a little I discovered a face—perhaps the handsomest face that
I have ever seen, of a gold brown colour, framed in an amazingly large
and beautiful black beard. The features were finely formed and almost
fluent, the eyes soft and extraordinarily sensitive, the mouth delicate
and firm beneath a black moustache which fused with the silky and
wonderful darkness falling upon the breast. The face contained a beauty
and dignity which, as I first saw it, annihilated the surrounding
tumult without an effort. Around the carefully formed nostrils there
was something almost of contempt. The cheeks had known suns of which I
might not think. The feet had travelled nakedly in countries not easily
imagined. Seated gravely in the mud and noise of the cour, under
the pitiful and scraggly pommier ... behind the eyes lived a
world of complete strangeness and silence. The composure of the body
was graceful and Jove-like. This being might have been a prophet come
out of a country nearer to the sun. Perhaps a god who bad lost his road
and allowed himself to be taken prisoner by le gouvernement
français. At least a prince of a dark and desirable country, a king
over a gold-skinned people, who would return when he wished to his
fountains and his houris. I learned upon inquiry that he travelled in
various countries with a horse and cart and his wife and children,
selling bright colours to the women and men of these countries. As it
turned out, he was one of The Delectable Mountains; to discover which I
had come a long and difficult way. Wherefore I shall tell you no more
about him for the present, except that his name was Joseph Demestre.
We called him The Wanderer.
I was still wondering at my good luck in occupying the same
miserable yard with this exquisite personage when a hoarse, rather
thick voice shouted from the gate: 'L'américain!'
It was a planton,
in fact the chief
planton for whom
all ordinary plantons had unutterable respect and whom all mere
men unutterably hated. It was the planton into whom I had had
the distinguished honour of bumping shortly after my visit to le
The Hollanders and Fritz were at the gate in a mob, all shouting
'Which' in four languages.
did not deign to notice them. He repeated
roughly 'L'américain.' Then, yielding a point to their frenzied
entreaties: 'Le nouveau.'
B. said to me, 'Probably he's going to take you to the
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
'Where the devil is the American?' cried the
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
I asked "Where?'
'Straight ahead,' he said angrily.
I Proceeded. 'Left!' he cried. I turned. A door confronted me.
'Entrez,' he commanded. I did. An unremarkable-looking
gentleman in a French uniform, sitting at a sort of table. 'Monsieur
le médecin, le nouveau.' The doctor got up. 'Open your shirt.' I
did. 'Take down your pants.' I did. 'All right.' Then, as the planton was about to escort me from the room: 'English?' he asked
with curiosity. 'No,' I said, 'American.' 'Vraiment'—he contemplated
me with attention. 'South American are you?' 'United States,' I
explained. 'Vraiment'—he looked curiously at me, not disagreeably in
the least. 'Pourquoi vous êstes ici?' 'I don't know,' I said, smiling
pleasantly, 'except that my friend wrote some letters which were
intercepted by the French censor.' 'Ah!' he remarked. 'C'est tout.'
And I departed. 'Proceed!' cried the Black Holster. I retraced my
steps, and was about to exit through the door leading to the cour, when
'Stop! Nom de Dien! Proceed!'
I asked 'Where?' completely bewildered.
'Up,' he said angrily.
I turned to the stairs on the left, and climbed.
'Not so fast there,' he roared behind me.
I slowed up. We reached the landing. I was sure that the
a very fierce man—probably a lean slight person
who would rush at me from the nearest door, saying 'Hands up' in
French, whatever that may be. The door opposite me stood open. I looked
in. There was the Surveillant standing, hands behind back,
approvingly regarding my progress. I was asking myself, Should I bow?
when a scurrying and a tittering made me look left, along a dark and
particularly dirty hall. Women's voices ... I almost fell with
surprise. Were not these shadows faces peering a little boldly at me
from doors? How many girls were there—it sounded as if there were a
'Qu'est-ce que vous foutez,'
etc., and the
planton gave me a good shove in the direction
of another flight of stairs. I obligingly ascended; thinking of the Surveillant
as a spider, elegantly poised in the centre of his
nefarious web, waiting for a fly to make too many struggles....
At the top of this flight I was confronted by a second hall. A shut
door indicated the existence of a being directly over the Surveillant's holy head. Upon this door, lest I should lose time in
speculating, was in ample letters inscribed:
I felt unutterably lost. I approached the door. I even started to
'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
whoever he is, must be a
very terrible' person, a frightful person, a person utterly without
From within a heavy, stupid, pleasant voice lazily remarked:
threw the door open, stood stiffly on the
threshold, and gave me the look which plantons give to eggs when plantons
are a little hungry.
I crossed the threshold, trembling with (let us hope) anger.
Before me, seated at a table, was a very fat personage with a black
skull-cap perched upon its head. Its face was possessed of an enormous
nose, on which pince-nez precariously roosted; otherwise said face was
large, whiskered, very German and had three chins. Extraordinary
creature. Its belly, as it sat, was slightly dented by the table-top,
on which table-top rested several enormous tomes similar to those
employed by the recording angel on the Day of Judgement, an ink-stand
or two, innumerable pens and pencils, and some positively fatal-looking
papers. The person was dressed in worthy and semi-dismal clothes amply
cut to afford a promenade for the big stomach. The coat was of that
extremely thin black material which occasionally is affected by clerks
and dentists and more often by librarians. If ever I looked upon an
honest German jowl, or even upon a caricature thereof, I looked upon
one now. Such a round, fat, red, pleasant, beer-drinking face as
reminded me only and immediately of huge meerschaum pipes, Deutsche
Verein mottos, sudsy seidels of Wurtzburger, and Jacob Wirth's (once
upon a time) brachwurst. Such pin-like pink merry eyes as made me think
of Kris Kringle himself. Such extraordinarily huge reddish hands as
might have grasped six seidels together in the Deutsche Küche on 13th
Street. I gasped with pleasurable relief.
Monsieur le Gestionnaire
looked as if he was trying very hard, with the aid of his
beribboned glasses and librarian's jacket (not to mention a very
ponderous gold watch-ch—ain and locket that were supported by his
copious equator), to appear possessed of the solemnity necessarily
emanating from his lofty and responsible office. This solemnity,
however, met its Waterloo in his frank and stupid eyes, not to say his
trilogy of cheerful chins-so much so that I felt like crying "Wie
gehts!' and cracking him on his huge back. Such an animal! A contented
animal, a bulbous animal; the only living hippopotamus in captivity,
fresh from the Nile.
He contemplated me with a natural, under the circumstances,
curiosity. He even naively contemplated me. As if I were bay. My
hay-coloured head perhaps pleased him, as a hippopotamus. He would
perhaps eat me. He grunted, exposing tobacco-yellow tusks, and his tiny
eyes twittered. Finally he gradually uttered, with a thick accent, the
following extremely impressive dictum:
I felt much pleased, and said, 'Oui, j'suis américain, Monsieur.'
He rolled half over backwards in his creaking chair with wonderment
at such an unexpected retort. He studied my face with a puzzled air,
appearing slightly embarrassed that before him should stand l'américain
and that l'américain
should admit it, and that
it should all be so wonderfully clear. I saw a second dictum, even more
profound than the first, ascending from his black vest. The chain and
fob trembled with anticipation. I was wholly fascinated. What vast blob
of wisdom would find its difficult way out of him? The bulbous lips
wiggled in a pleasant smile.
'Voo parlez français.'
This was delightful. The
planton behind me was obviously
angered by the congenial demeanour of Monsieur le Gestionnaire, and rasped with his boot upon the threshold. The maps to my right and
left, maps of France, maps of the Mediterranean, of Europe even, were
abashed. A little anæmic and humble biped whom I had not previously
noted, as he stood in one corner with a painfully deferential
expression, looked all at once relieved. I guessed, and correctly
guessed, that this little thing was the translator of La Ferté. His
weak face wore glasses of the same type as the hippopotamus's, but
without a huge black ribbon. I decided to give him a tremor; and said
to the hippo, 'Un peu, Monsieur,' at which the little thing
The hippopotamus benevolently remarked,
'Voo parlez bien,'
and his glasses fell off. He turned to the watchful planton:
'Voo poovez aller. Je vooz appelerai.'
planton did a sort of salute and closed the door
after him. The skull-capped dignitary turned to his papers and began
mouthing them with his huge hands, grunting pleasantly. Finally he
found one, and said lazily:
'De quel endroit que vous êtes?
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
Then he said: 'Have you got any money?' and before I could answer
clambered heavily to his feet and, leaning over the table before which
I stood, punched me gently.
'Uh,' said the hippopotamus, sat down, and put on his glasses.
I have your money here,' he said. 'You are allowed to draw a little
from time to time. You may draw 20 francs, if you like. You may draw it
twice a week.'
I should like to draw 20 francs now,' I said, 'in order to buy
something at the canteen.'
'You will give me a receipt,' said the hippopotamus. 'You want to
draw 20 francs now, quite so.' He began, puffing and grunting, to make
handwriting of a peculiarly large and somewhat loose variety.
The weak face now stepped forward, and asked me gently: 'Hugh er a
merry can?'—so I carried on a brilliant conversation in
pidgin-English about my relatives and America until interrupted by:
The hip had finished.
'Sign your name here,' he said, and I did. He looked about in one of
the tomes and checked something opposite my name, which I enjoyed
seeing in the list of inmates. It had been spelled, erased, and
re-spelled several times.
Monsieur le Gestionnaire
contemplated my signature. Then he looked up, smiled, and nodded
recognition to some one behind me. I turned. There stood (having long
since noiselessly entered) the Fencer Himself, nervously clasping and
unclasping his hands behind his back and regarding me with approval, or
as a keeper regards some rare monkey newly forwarded from its habitat
The hip pulled out a drawer. He found, after hunting, some notes. He
counted two off, licking his big thumb with a pompous gesture, and
having recounted them passed them heavily to me. I took them as a
monkey takes a coco-nut.
'Do you wish?'—the
nodded toward me,
addressing the Fencer.
'No, no,' the Fencer said bowingly. 'I have talked to him already.'
'Call that planton!'
cried Monsieur le Gestionnaire,
to the little thing. The little thing ran out dutifully and called in a
weak voice 'Planton!'
A gruff but respectful
'Oui' boomed from below-stairs. In a
moment the planton of plantons had respectfully entered.
'The promenade being over, you can take him to the men's room,' said
the Surveillant, as the hippo (immensely relieved and rather
proud of himself) collapsed in his creaking chair.
Feeling like a suit-case in the clutches of a porter, I obediently
preceded my escort down two flights, first having bowed to the
hippopotamus and said 'Merci'—to which courtesy the Hippo paid no
attention. As we went along the dank hall on the ground floor, I
regretted that no whispers and titters bad greeted my descent. Probably
the furious planton had seen to it that les femmes kept
their rooms in silence: 'We ascended the three flights at the farther
end of the corridor, the planton of all plantons unlocked and unbolted the door at the top landing, and I was swallowed
by The Enormous Room.
I made for B., in my excitement allowing myself to wave the
bank-notes. Instantly a host had gathered at my side. On my way to my
bed—a distance of perhaps thirty feet—I was patted on the back by
Harree, Pompom and Bathhouse John, congratulated by Monsieur Auguste,
and saluted by Fritz. Arriving, I found myself the centre of a
stupendous crowd. People who had previously had nothing to say to me,
who had even sneered at my unwashed and unshaven exterior, now
addressed me in terms of more than polite interest. Judas himself
stopped in a promenade of the room, eyed me a moment, hastened smoothly
to my vicinity, and made a few oily remarks of a pleasant nature.
Simultaneously by Monsieur Auguste, Harree and Fritz I was advised to
hide my money and hide it well. There were people, you know ... who
didn't hesitate, you understand ... I understood, and to the vast
disappointment of the clamorous majority reduced my wealth to its
lowest terms and crammed it in my trousers, stuffing several trifles of
a bulky nature on top of it. Then I gazed quietly around with a William
S. Hart expression calculated to allay any undue excitement. One by one
the curious and enthusiastic faded from me, and I was left with the few
whom I already considered my friends; with which few B. and myself
proceeded to while away the time remaining before Lumières Eteintes.
Incidentally, I exchanged (in the course of the next two hours) a
considerable mass of two-legged beings for a number of extremely
interesting individuals. Also, in that somewhat limited period of time,
I gained all sorts of highly enlightening information concerning the
lives, habits and likes of half a dozen of as fine companions as it has
ever been my luck to meet or, so far as I can now imagine, ever will
be. In prison one learns several million things—if one is l'américain
When the ominous and
awe-inspiring rattle on the farther side of the locked door announced
that the captors were come to bid the captives good night, I was still
in the midst of conversation and had been around the world a number of
times. At the clanking sound our little circle centripetally
disintegrated, as if by sheer magic: and I was left somewhat dizzily to
face a renewal of reality.
The door shot wide. The
planton's almost indistinguishable
figure in the doorway told me that the entire room was dark. I had not
noticed the darkness. Somebody had placed a candle (which I recalled
having seen on a table in the middle of the room when I looked up once
or twice during the conversation) on a little shelf bard by the cabinet. There had been men playing at cards by this candle now
everybody was quietly reposing upon the floor along three sides of The
Enormous Room. The planton entered. 'Walked over to the light.
Said something about everybody being present, and was answered by a
number of voices in a more or less profane affirmative. Strutted to and
fro, kicked the cabinet, flashed an electric torch, and walked
up the room examining each paillasse to make sure it had
an occupant. Crossed the room at the upper end. Started down on my
side. The white circle was in my eyes. The planton stopped. I
stared stupidly and wearily into the glare. The light moved all over me
and my bed. The rough voice behind the glare said:
'Vous êtes le nouveau?'
Monsieur Auguste, from my left, said quietly:
'Oui, c'est le nouveau.`
The holder of the torch grunted, and (after pausing a second at B.'s
bed to inspect a picture of perfect innocence) banged out through the
door, which whanged to behind him and another planton of whose
presence I had been hitherto unaware. A perfect symphony of 'Bonne-nuit's'., 'Dormez-bien's'
and other affectionate admonitions
greeted the exeunt of the authorities. They were advised by various
parts of the room in divers tongues to dream of their wives, to be
careful of themselves in bed, to avoid catching cold, and to attend to
a number of personal wants before retiring. The symphony gradually
collapsed, leaving me sitting in a state of complete wonderment, dead
tired and very happy, upon my paillasse.
'I think I'll turn in,' I said to the neighbouring darkness.
'That's what I'm doing,' B.'s voice said.
'By God,' I said, 'this is the finest place I've ever been in my
'It's the finest place in the world,' said B.'s voice.
'Thank Heaven, we're out of A.'s way and the
I grunted as I placed my boots where a pillow might have been imagined.
'Amen,' B.'s voice said.
'Si vous met-tez vos chaus-sures en des-sous de la paillasse,
, Monsieur Auguste's voice said,
'vous al-lez bien dor-mir.,
I thanked him for the suggestion, and did so. I reclined in an
ecstasy of happiness and weariness. There could be nothing better than
this. To sleep.
'Got a gottverdummer
cigarette?' Harree's voice asked of
'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
away, a subdued conversation was
proceeding. I found myself listening sleepily.
a voice said,
'je suis réformé . . .'
V. 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, Gré and Paris to the Porte de Triage de La Ferté Macé,
Orne. With the end of my first day as a certified inhabitant of the
latter institution a definite progression is brought to a close.
Beginning with my second day at La Ferté a new period opens. This
period extends to the moment of my departure and includes the discovery
of The Delectable Mountains, two of which—The 'Wanderer, and I shall
not say the other—have already been sighted. It is like a vast grey
box in which are laid helter-skelter a great many toys, each of which
is itself completely significant apart from the always unchanging
temporal dimension which merely contains it along with the rest. I make
this point clear for the benefit of any of my readers who have not had
the distinguished privilege of being in jail. To those who have been in
jail my meaning is at once apparent; particularly if they have had the
highly enlightening experience of being in jail with a perfectly
indefinite sentence. How, in such a case, could events occur and be
remembered otherwise than as individualities distinct from Time Itself?
Or, since one day and the next are the same to such a prisoner, where
does Time come in at all? Obviously, once the prisoner is habituated to
his environment, once he accepts the fact that speculation as to when
he will regain his liberty cannot possibly shorten the hours of his
incarceration and may very well drive him into a state of unhappiness
(not to say morbidity), events can no longer succeed each other:
whatever happens, while it may happen in connection with some other
perfectly distinct happening, does not happen in a scale of temporal
priorities—each happening is self-sufficient, irrespective of
minutes, months and the other treasures of freedom.
It is for this reason that I do not purpose to inflict upon the
reader a diary of my alternative aliveness and nonexistence at La
Ferté—not because such a diary would unutterably bore him, but
because the diary or time method is a technique which cannot possibly
do justice to timelessness. I shall (on the contrary) lift from their
grey box at random certain (to me) more or less astonishing toys; which
may or may not please the reader, but whose colours and shapes and
textures are a part of that actual Present—without future and
past-whereof they alone are cognizant who, so to speak, have submitted
to an amputation of the world.
I have already stated that La Ferté was a
Porte de Triage
—that is to say, a place where suspects of all varieties were herded
by le gouvernement français preparatory to their being judged as
to their guilt by a Commission. If the Commission found that they were
wicked persons, or dangerous persons, or undesirable persons, or
puzzling persons, or persons in some way insusceptible of analysis,
they were sent from La Ferté to a 'regular' prison, called Précigné, in
the province of Sarthe. About Précigné the most awful rumours were
spread. It was whispered that it had a huge moat about it, with an
infinity of barbed-wire fences thirty feet high, and lights trained on
the walls all night to discourage the escape of prisoners. Once in
Précigné you were 'in' for good and all, pour la durée de la guerre,
was a subject of occasional and dismal
speculation—occasional for reasons (as I have mentioned) of mental
health; dismal for unreasons of diet, privation, filth, and other
trifles. La Ferté was, then, a stepping-stone either to freedom or to
Précigné, the chances in the former case being—no speculation
here—something less than the now celebrated formula made famous by
the 18th amendment. But the excellent and inimitable and altogether
benignant French government was not satisfied with its own generosity
in presenting one merely with Précigné—beyond that lurked a
cauchemar called by the singularly poetic name, Isle de Groix. A
man who went to Isle de Groix was done.
As the Surveillant
said to us all, leaning out of a littlish
window, and to me personally upon occasion
'You are not prisoners. Oh, no. No indeed. I should say not.
Prisoners are not treated like this. You are lucky.'
I had de la chance
all right, but that was something which
pauvre M. le Surveillant
wot altogether not of. As for my
fellow-prisoners, I am sorry to say that he was—it seems to my humble
personality—quite wrong. For who was eligible to La Ferté? Anyone
whom the police could find in the lovely country of France (a) who
was not guilty of treason, (b) who could not prove that he was not
guilty of treason. By treason I refer to any little annoying habits of
independent thought or action which en temps de guerre are put
in a hole and covered over, with the somewhat naïve idea that from
their cadavers violets will grow whereof the perfume will delight all
good men and true and make such worthy citizens forget their sorrows.
Fort Leavenworth, for instance, emanates even now a perfume which is
utterly delightful to certain Americans. Just how many La Fertés France
boasted (and for all I know may still boast) God Himself knows. At
least, in that Republic, amnesty has been proclaimed, or so I
hear.—But to return to the Surveillant's remark.
J'avais de la chance.
Because I am by profession a painter and a writer. 'Whereas my very
good friends, all of them deeply suspicious characters, most of them
traitors, without exception lucky to have the use of their cervical
vertebræ, etc., etc., could (with a few exceptions) write not a word
and read not a word; neither could they faire la photographie as
Monsieur Auguste chucklingly called it (at which I blushed with
pleasure): worst of all, the majority of these dark criminals who bad
been caught in nefarious plots against the honour of France were
totally unable to speak French. Curious thing. Often I pondered the
unutterable and inextinguishable wisdom of the police, who—undeterred
by facts which would have deceived less astute intelligences into
thinking that these men were either too stupid or too simple to be
connoisseurs of the art of betrayal—swooped upon their helpless prey
with that indescribable courage which is the prerogative of policemen
the world over, and bundled same prey into the La Fertés of that mighty
nation upon some, at least, of whose public buildings it seems to me
that I remember reading
Liberté. Egalité. Fraternité.
And I wondered that France should have a use for Monsieur Auguste,
who had been arrested (because he was a Russian) when his fellow
munition workers made la grève, and whose wife wanted him in
Paris because she was hungry and because their child was getting to
look queer and white. Monsieur Auguste, that desperate ruffian exactly
five feet tall who—when he could not keep from crying (one must think
about one's wife or even one's child once or twice, I merely presume,
if one loves them) 'et ma femme est très gen-tille, elle est
fran-çaise et très belle, très, très belle, vrai-ment elle n'est pas
comme moi, —un pe-tit homme laid, ma femme est grande et belle, elle
sait bien lire et écrire, vrai-ment; et notre fils ... vous
de-vez voir notre pe-tit fils . . .'—-used to, start up and cry
out, taking B. by one arm and me by the other:
'Al-lons, mes amis! Chan-tons "Quackquackquack."'
Whereupon we would join in the following song, which Monsieur
Auguste had taught us with great care, and whose renditions gave him
'Un canard, déployant
II disait à sa canarde fidèle
Il chantait (Quackquackquack)
Quand' (spelling mine)
'finirons nos desseins,
I suppose I will always puzzle over the ecstasies of That Wonderful
Duck. And how Monsieur Auguste, the merest gnome of a man, would bend
backwards in absolute laughter at this song's spirited conclusion upon
a note so low as to wither us all.
Then too the Schoolmaster.
A little fragile old man. His trousers were terrifically too big for
him. When he walked (in an insecure and frightened way) his trousers
did the most preposterous wrinkles. If he leaned against a tree in the cour, with a very old and also fragile pipe in his pocket—the
stem (which looked enormous in contrast to the owner) protruding
therefrom—his three-sizes-too-big collar would leap out so as to make
his wizened neck appear no thicker than the white necktie which flowed
upon his two-sizes-too-big shirt. He wore always a coat which reached
below his knees, which coat with which knees perhaps some one had once
given him. It had huge shoulders which sprouted, like wings, on either
side of his elbows when he sat in The Enormous Room quietly writing at
a tiny three-legged table, a very big pen walking away with his weak
bony hand. His too big cap had a little button on top which looked like
the head of a nail, and suggested that this old doll had once lost its
poor grey head and had been repaired by means of tacking its head upon
its neck, where it should be and properly belonged. Of what hideous
crime was this being suspected? By some mistake he had three
moustaches, two of them being eyebrows. He used to teach school in
Alsace-Lorraine, and his sister is there. In speaking to you his kind
face is peacefully reduced to triangles. And his tie buttons on every
morning with a Bang! And off he goes; led about by his celluloid
collar, gently worried about himself, delicately worried about the
world. At eating time he looks sidelong as he stuffs soup into stiff
lips. There are two holes where cheeks might have been. Lessons hide in
his wrinkles. Bells ding in the oldness of eyes. Did he, by any chance,
tell the children that there are such monstrous things as peace and
goodwill ... a corrupter of youth, no doubt ... he is altogether
incapable of anger, wholly timid and tintinnabulous. And he had always
wanted so much to know—if there were wild horses in America?
Yes, probably the Schoolmaster was a notorious seditionist. The
all-wise French government has its ways, which, like the ways of God,
are wonderful. But how about. Emile?
Emile the Bum. Is the reader acquainted with the cartoons of Mr. F.
Opper? If not, he cannot properly relish this personage. Emile the Bum
was a man of thought. In chasing his legs, his trousers seat scoots
intriguingly up-and-to-the-side. How often, Emile the Bum, après la
soupe, have I ascended behind thee; going slowly up and up and up
the miserable stairs behind thy pants' timed slackness. Emile possesses
a scarf which he winds about his ample thighs, thereby connecting his
otherwise elusively independent trousers with that very important
individual—his stomach. His face is unshaven. He is unshorn. Like all
Belgians, he has a quid in his gums night and day, which quid he buys
outside in the town; for in his capacity of Somethingorother (perhaps
assistant sweeper) he journeys (under proper surveillance) occasionally
from the gates which unthoughtful men may not leave. His F. Opper soul
peeps from slippery little eyes. Having entered an argument—be its
subject the rights of humanity, the price of potatoes, or the wisdom of
warfare—Emile the Bum sticks to his theme and his man. He is,
curiously enough, above all things sincere. He is almost treacherously
sincere. Having argued a man to a standstill and won from him an abject
admission of complete defeat, Emile stalks rollingly away. Upon
reaching a distance of perhaps five metres he suddenly makes a rush at
his victim—having turned around with the velocity of lightning, in
fact so quickly that no one saw him do it;—his victim writhes anew
under the lash of Emile the Bum's insatiate loquacity,—admits,
confesses, begs pardon—and off Emile stalks rollingly . . .to turn
again and dash back at his almost weeping opponent, thundering
sputteringly with rejuvenated vigour, a vigour which annihilates
everything (including reason) before it. Otherwise, considering that he
is a Belgian, he is extraordinarily good-natured and minds his business
rollingly and sucks his quid happily. Not a tremendously harmful
individual, one would say... and why did the French Government need him
behind lock and key, I wonder? It was his fatal eloquence, doubtless,
which betrayed him to the clutches of La Misère. Gendarmes are
sensitive in peculiar ways; they do not stand for any misleading
information upon the probable destiny of the price of potatoes—since
it is their duty and their privilege to resent all that is seditious to
the Government, and since The Government includes the Minister of
Agriculture (or something), and since the Minister of Something
includes, of course, potatoes, and that means that no one is at liberty
to in any way (however slightly or insinuatingly) insult a potato. I
bet Emile the Bum insulted two potatoes.
We still have, however, the problem of the man in the Orange Cap.
The man in the Orange Cap was, optically as well as in every other
respect, delightful. Until the Zulu came (of which more later) he was a
little and quietly lonely. The Zulu, however, played with him. He was
always chasing the Zulu around trees in the cour; dodging,
peeping, tagging him on his coat, and sometimes doing something like
laughing. Before the Zulu came he was lonely because nobody would have
anything to do with the little man in the Orange Cap. This was not
because he had done something unpopular; on the contrary, he was
perfectly well behaved. It was because he could not speak. Perhaps I
should say with more accuracy that he could not articulate. This fact
did not prevent the little man in the Orange Cap from being shy. When I
asked him one day, what he had been arrested for, he replied GOO in the
shyest manner imaginable. He was altogether delightful. Subconsciously
every one was, of course, fearful that he himself would go nuts—every
one with the exception of those who had already gone nuts, who were in
the wholly pleasant situation of having no fear. The still sane were
therefore inclined to snub and otherwise affront their luckier
fellow-sufferers—unless, as in the case of Bathhouse John, the insane
was fully protected by a number of unbeatable gentlemen of his own
nationality. The little person was snubbed and affronted at every turn.
He didn't care the littlest personal bit, beyond being quietly lonely
so far as his big, blue, expressionless eyes were concerned, and
keeping out of the way when fights were on. Which fights he sometimes
caught himself enjoying, whereupon he would go sit under a very small
apple-tree and ruminate thoroughly upon non-existence until he had
sufficiently punished himself. I still don't see how the gouvernement français
decided to need him in La Ferté, unless—ah!
that's it ... he was really a superintelligent crook who had robbed the
cabinet of the greatest cabinet-minister of the greatest
cabinet-minister's cabinet papers, a crime involving the remarkable and
demoralizing disclosure that President Poincaré had, the night before,
been discovered in an unequal hand to hand battle with a
défaitistically-minded bed-bug ... and all the apparent idiocy of the
little man with the Orange Cap was a skilfully executed bluff ... and
probably he was, even when I knew him, gathering evidence of a nature
so derogatory as to be well-nigh unpublishable even by the disgusting Défaitiste
Organ itself; evidence about the innocent and faithful
plantons ... yes, now I remember, I asked him in French if it
wasn't a fine day (because, as always, it was raining, and he and I
alone had dared the promenade together) and he looked me straight in
the eyes, and said WOO, and smiled shyly. That would seem to
corroborate the theory that he was a master mind, for (obviously) the
letters, W, O, O, stand for 'Wilhelm, Ober, Olles, which again is
Austrian for Down With Yale. Yes, yes. Le gouvernement français was right, as always. Somebody once told me that the little person was
an Austrian, and that The Silent Man was an Austrian, and
that—whisper it—they were both Austrians! And that was why they
were arrested; just as So-and-so (being a Turk) was naturally arrested,
and So-and-so, a Pole, was inevitably naturally and of course (en
temps de guerre) arrested. And me, an American; wasn't me arrested?
I said Me certainly was, and Me's friend, too.
Once I did see the Orange Cap walk shyly up to The Silent Man. They
looked at each other, both highly embarrassed, both perhaps conscious
that they ought to say something Austrian to each other. The Silent Man
looked away. The little person's face became vacant and lonely, and he
tip-toed quietly back to his apple-tree.
'So-and-so, being a Turk' moved in one night,
all—having arrived from Paris on a very late train, heavily guarded
by three gendarmes—to a vacant spot temporarily which separated my
bed from the next bed on my right. Of the five definite and confirmed
amusements which were established at La Ferté Macé—to wit, (1)
spitting, (2) playing cards, (3) insulting plantons, (4) writing
to the girls, and (5) fighting—I possessed a slight aptitude for the
first only. By long practice, leaning with various more accomplished
artists from a window and attempting to hit either the sentinel below
or a projecting window-ledge or a spot of mud which, after refined and
difficult intellectual exercise, we all had succeeded in agreeing upon,
I had become not to be sure a master of the art of spitting but a
competitor to be reckoned with so far as accuracy was concerned.
Spitting in bed was not only amusing, it was—for climatic and other
reasons—a necessity. The vacant place to my right made a very
agreeable not to say convenient spittoon. Not every one, in fact only
two or three, had my advantage. But every one had to spit at night. As
I lay in bed, having for the third time spit into my spittoon, I was
roused by a vision in neatly pressed pyjamas which had arisen from the
darkness directly beside me. I sat up and confronted a small and, as
nearly as I could make out, Jewish ghost, with sensitive eyes and an
expression of mild protest centred in his talking checks. The language,
said I, is Arabian—but who ever heard of an Arab in pyjamas? So I
humbly apologized in French, explaining that his advent was to me as
unexpected as it was pleasant. Next morning we exchanged the
visiting-cards which prisoners use, that is to say he smoked one of my
cigarettes and I one of his, and I learned that he was a Turk whose
brother worked in Paris for a confectioner. With a very graceful and
polite address he sought in his not over copious baggage and produced,
to my delight and astonishment, the most delicious sweetmeats which I
have ever sampled. His generosity was as striking as his refinement. We
were fast friends in fifteen minutes. Of an evening, subsequently, he
would sit on B.'s bed or mine and tell us about how he could not
imagine that he could have been arrested; tell it with a restrained
wonderment which we found extraordinarily agreeable. He was not at all
annoyed when we questioned him about the Arabian, Turkish and Persian
languages, and when pressed he wrote a little for us with a simplicity
and elegance that were truly enchanting. I have spent many contented
minutes sitting alone copying certain of these rhythmic fragments. We
hinted that he might perhaps sing, at which he merely blushed as if he
were remembering (or possibly dreaming of) something distant and too
pleasant for utterance.
He was altogether too polite—not to have been needed at La Ferté.
In supposing that we needed a professor of dancing the French
government made, perhaps, one little mistake.
I am so bold as to say this because I recall that the extraordinary
being in question was with us only a short while. Whither he went the
Lord knows, but he left with great cheerfulness. A vain blond boy of
perhaps eighteen in blue velvet corduroy pantaloons, who wore a big
sash, and exclaimed to us all in confidence:
, j'suis Professeur de danse.'
Adding that he held at that minute
Hollanders had no use for him but we rather liked him—as you would
like a somewhat absurd peacock who, for some reason, lit upon the sewer
in which you were living for the eternal nonce. About him I remember
nothing else; save that he talked boxing with an air of bravado and
addressed every one as 'mon vieux.' When he left, clutching his
baggage lightly and a little pale, it was as if our dung-heap were
minus a butterfly. I imagine that Monsieur Malvy was fond of collecting
butterflies—until he got collected himself. Some day I must visit
him, at the Santé or whatever health resort he inhabits, and
(introducing myself as one of those whom he sent to La Ferté Macé)
question him upon the subject.
I had almost forgotten The Bear-number two, not to be confused with
the seeker of cigarette-ends. A big, shaggy person, a farmer, talked
about 'mon petit jardin,' an anarchist, wrote practically all
the time (to the gentle annoyance of The Schoolmaster) at the
queer-legged table; wrote letters (which he read aloud with evident
satisfaction to himself) addressing 'my confrères,' stimulating them to
even greater efforts, telling them that the time was ripe, that the
world consisted of brothers, etc. I liked The Bear. He had a sincerity
which, if somewhat startlingly uncouth, was always definitely
compelling. His French itself was both uncouth and startling. I hardly
think he was a dangerous bear. Had I been the French government I
should have let him go berrying, as a bear must and should, to his
heart's content. Perhaps I liked him best for his great awkward way of
presenting an idea —he scooped it out of its environment with a
hearty paw in a way which would have delighted anyone save le gouvernement français.
He had, I think,
'VIVE LA LIBERTÉ
tattooed in blue and green on his big, hairy chest. A fine bear. A
bear whom no twitchings at his muzzle nor any starvation or yet any
beating could ever teach to dance ...but then, I am partial to bears.
Of course none of this bear's letters ever got posted—Le Directeur was not that sort of person; nor did this bear ever expect that
they would go elsewhere than into the official waste-basket of
La Ferté, which means that he wrote because he liked to; which again
means that he was essentially an artist-for which reason I liked him
more than a little.. He lumbered off one day—l hope to his
brier-patch, and to his children, and to his confrères, and to
all things excellent and livable and highly desirable to a bruin.
The Young Russian and The Barber escaped while I was enjoying my
little visit at Orne. The former was an immensely tall and very strong
boy of nineteen or under, who had come to our society by way of
solitary confinement, bread and water for months, and other reminders
that to err is human, etc. Unlike Harree, whom if anything he exceeded
in strength, he was very quiet. Every one let him alone. I 'caught
water' in the town with him several times and found him an excellent
companion. He taught me the Russian numerals up to ten, and was very
kind to my struggles over 10 and 9. He picked up the cannon-ball one
day and threw it so hard that the wall separating the men's cour from
the cour des femmes shook, and a piece of stone fell off. At
which the cannonball was taken away from us (to the grief of its daily
wielders, Harree and Fritz) by four perspiring plantons who
almost died in the performance of their highly patriotic duty. His
friend, The Barber, had a little shelf in The Enormous Room, all
tricked out with an astonishing array of bottles, atomisers, tonics,
powders, scissors, razors and other deadly implements. It has always
been a mystère to me that our captors permitted this array of
obviously dangerous weapons when we were searched almost weekly for
knives. Had I not been in the habit of using B.'s safety-razor I should
probably have become better acquainted with The Barber. It was not his
price, nor yet his technique, but the fear of contamination which made
me avoid these instruments of hygiene. Not that I shaved to excess. On
the contrary, the Surveillant often, nay biweekly (so soon as I
began drawing certain francs from Norton Harjes) reasoned with me upon
the subject of appearance; saying that I was come of a good family,
that I had enjoyed (unlike my companions) an education, and that I
should keep myself neat and clean and be a shining example to the
filthy and ignorant—adding slyly that the 'hospital' would be an
awfully nice place for me and my friend to live, and that there we
could be by ourselves like gentlemen and have our meals served in the
room, avoiding the salle à manger; moreover the food would be
what we liked, delicious food, especially cooked ... all (quoth the Surveillant
with the itching palm of a Grand Central Porter
awaiting his tip) for a mere trifle or so, which if I liked I could pay
him on the spot—whereat I scornfully smiled, being inhibited by a
somewhat selfish regard for my own welfare from kicking him through the
window. To The Barber's credit be it said: he never once solicited my
trade, although the Surveillant's 'Soi-même' lectures (as B. and
I referred to them) were the delight of our numerous friends and must,
through them, have reached his alert ears. He was a good-looking quiet
man of perhaps thirty, with razor-keen eyes—and that's about all I
know of him except that one day The Young Russian and The Barber,
instead of passing from the cour directly to the building, made
use of a little door in an angle between the stone wall and the
kitchen; and that to such good effect that we never saw them again. Nor
were the ever watchful guardians of our safety, the lion-hearted plantons, aware of what had occurred until several hours after;
despite the fact that a ten-foot wall had been scaled, some lesser
obstructions vanquished, and a run in the open made almost (one
unpatriotically-minded might be tempted to say) before their very eyes.
But then—who knows? May not the French government deliberately have
allowed them to escape, after—through its incomparable spy
system—learning that The Barber and his young friend were about to
attempt the life of the Surveillant with an atomiser brim-full
of T.N.T.? Nothing could after all be more highly probable. As a matter
of fact, a couple of extra-fine razors (presented by the
Soi-même-minded Surveillant to the wily coiffeur in the
interests of public health) as well as a knife which belonged to the cuisine
and had been lent to The Barber for the purpose of peeling
potatoes—he having complained that the extraordinary safety-device
with which, on alternate days, we were ordinarily furnished for that
purpose, was an insult to himself and his profession—vanished into
the rather thick air of Orne along with The Barber lui-même. I
remember him perfectly in The Enormous Room, cutting apples
deliberately with his knife and sharing them with the Young Russian.
The night of the escape—in order to keep up our morale—we were
helpfully told that both refugees had been snitched e'er they had got
well without the limits of the town, and been remanded to a punishment
consisting, among other things, in travaux forcés à
perpétuité—verbum sapientibus, he that hath ears, etc.
Also a nightly inspection was instituted; consisting of our being
counted thrice by a planton, who then divided the total by 3 and
reminds me of a pleasant spirit who graced our little company with
a good deal of wit and elegance. He was called by B. and myself, after
a somewhat exciting incident which I must not describe but rather
outline, by the agreeable title of Même le Balayeur. Only a few
days after my arrival the incident in question happened. it seems (I
was in la cour promenading for the afternoon) that certain more
virile inhabitants of The Enormous Room, among them Harree and Pom Pom bien entendu,
declined se promener
and kept their
habitat. Now this was in fulfilment of a little understanding with
three or more girls—such as Celina, Lily and Renée—who, having also
declined the promenade, managed in the course of the afternoon to
escape from their quarters on the second floor, rush down the hall and
upstairs, and gain that landing on which was the only and well-locked
door to The Enormous Room. The next act of this little comedy (or
tragedy, as it proved for the participants, who got cabinot and
pain sec—male and female alike—for numerous days thereafter) might
well be entitled 'Love will find a way.' Just how the door was opened,
the lock picked, etc., from the inside is (of course) a considerable
mystery to anyone possessing a limited acquaintance with the art of
burglary. Anyway, it was accomplished, and that in several fifths of a
second. Now let the curtain fall, and the reader be satisfied with the
significant word 'Asbestos' which is part of all first-rate
The Surveillant, I fear, distrusted his
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:
'Même le balayeur a tiré 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 Même, he was not locked up in a dungeon; but he
lost his job of sweeper—which was quite as bad, I am sure, from his
point of view—and from that day became a common inhabitant of The
Enormous Room like any of the rest of us.
His successor, Garibaldi, was a corker.
How the Almighty French government in its Almighty Wisdom ever found
Garibaldi a place among us is more than I understand or ever will. He
was a little tot in a faded blue-grey French uniform; and when he
perspired. he pushed a képi up and back from his worried
forehead which a lock of heavy hair threateningly overhung. As I
recollect Garibaldi's terribly difficult not to say complicated
lineage, his English mother had presented him to his Italian father in
the country of France. However this trilogy may be, he had served at
various times in the Italian, French and English armies. As there was
(unless we call Garibaldi Italian, which he obviously was not) nary a
subject of King Ponzi or Caruso or whatever be his name residing at La
Ferté Macé, nor yet a suitable citizen of Merry England, Garibaldi was
in the habit of expressing himself—chiefly at the card table, be it
said—in a curious language which might have been mistaken for French.
To B. and me he spoke an equally curious language, but a perfectly
recognizable one, i.e., Cockney Whitechapel English. He showed us a
perfectly authentic mission-card which certified that his family had
received a pittance from some charitable organization situated in the
Whitechapel neighbourhood, and that, moreover, they were in the habit
of receiving same pittance; and that, finally, their claim to such
pittance was amply justified by the poverty of their circumstances.
Beyond this valuable certificate, Garibaldi (which every one called
him) attained great incoherence. He had been wronged. He was always
being misunderstood. His life had been a series of mysterious
tribulations. I for one have the merest idea that Garibaldi was
arrested for the theft of some peculiarly worthless trifle, and sent to
the Limbo of La Ferté as a penance. This merest idea is suggested by
something which happened when the Clever Man instituted a search for
his missing knife—but I must introduce the Clever Man to my reader
before describing that rather beguiling incident.
Conceive a tall, well-dressed, rather athletic, carefully kept,
clean and neat, intelligent, not for a moment despondent, altogether
superior man fairly young (perhaps twenty-nine) and quite bald. He wins
enough every night at banque to enable him to pay the less
fortunate to perform his corvée d'eau. for him. As a consequence
he takes his vile coffee in bed every morning, then smokes a cigarette
or two lazily, then drops off for a nap, and gets up about the middle
of the morning promenade. Upon arising he strops a razor of his own
(nobody knows how he gets away with a regular razor), carefully lathers
his face and neck-while gazing into a rather classy mirror which hangs
night and day over his head, above a little shelf on which he displays
at such times a complete toilet outfit—and proceeds to annihilate the
inconsiderable growth of beard which his mirror reveals to him. Having
completed the annihilation, he performs the most extensive ablutions
per one of the three or four pails which The Enormous Room boasts,
which pail is by common consent dedicated to his personal and exclusive
use. All this time he has been singing loudly and musically the
following sumptuously imaginative ditty:
'mEEt me to-nIght in DREamland,
UNder the SIL-v'ry mOOn,
meet me in DREAmland,
my DRE-ams come trUE.'
His English accent is excellent. He pronounces his native language,
which is the language of the Hollanders, crisply and firmly. He is not
given to Gottverdummering. In addition to Dutch and English he speaks
French clearly and Belgian distinctly. I dare say he knows half a dozen
languages in all. He gives me the impression of a man who would never
be at a loss, in whatever circumstances he might find himself. A man
capable of extricating himself from the most difficult situation; and
that with the greatest ease. A man who bides his time, and improves the
present by separating, one after one, his moneyed fellow-prisoners from
their bank-notes. He is, by all odds, the coolest player that I have
ever watched. Nothing worries him. If he loses two hundred francs
to-night, I am sure he will win it and fifty in addition to-morrow. He
accepts opponents without distinction—the stupid, the wily, the vain,
the cautious, the desperate, the hopeless. He has not the slightest
pity, not the least fear. In one of my numerous notebooks I have this
perfectly direct paragraph:
Card table: 4 stares play banque with 2 cigarettes (1 dead) & A pipe
the clashing faces yanked by a leanness of one candle bottle-stuck
(Birth of X) where sits The Clever Man who pyramids, sings (mornings)
which specimen of telegraphic technique, being interpreted, means:
Judas, Garibaldi, and The Holland Skipper (whom the reader will meet de suite) -—Garibaldi's cigarette having gone out, so greatly is
he absorbed—play banque with four intent and highly focused
individuals who may or may not be The Schoolmaster, Monsieur Auguste,
The Barber, and Wine; with The Clever Man (as nearly always) acting as
banker. The candle by whose somewhat uncorpulent illumination the
various physiognomies are yanked into a ferocious unity is stuck into
the mouth of a bottle. The lighting of the whole, the rhythmic
disposition of the figures, construct a sensuous integration suggestive
of The Birth of Christ by one of the. Old Masters. The Clever Man,
having had his usual morning warble, is extremely quiet. He will win,
he pyramids—and he pyramids because he has the cash and can afford to
make every play a big one. All he needs is the rake of a croupier to,
complete his disinterested and wholly nerveless poise. He is a born
gambler, is The Clever Man—and I dare say that to play cards in time
of war constituted a heinous crime and I am certain that he played
cards before he arrived at La Ferté; moreover, I suppose that to win at
cards in time of war is an unutterable crime, and I know that he has
won at cards before in his life—so now we have a perfectly good and
valid explanation of the presence of The Clever Man in our midst. The
Clever Man's chief opponent was Judas. It was a real pleasure to us
whenever of an evening Judas sweated and mopped and sweated and lost
more and more and was finally cleaned out.
But The Skipper, I learned from certain prisoners who escorted the
baggage of The Clever Man from The Enormous Room when he left us one
day (as he did for some reason, to enjoy the benefits of freedom), paid
the mastermind of the card table 150 francs at the gare—poor Skipper!
upon whose vacant bed lay down luxuriously the Lobster, immediately to
be wheeled fiercely all around The Enormous Room by the Garde-Champêtre
and Judas, to the boisterous plaudits of
tout le monde—but I started to tell about the afternoon when the
master-mind lost his knife; and tell it I will forthwith. B. and I were
lying prone upon our respective beds when—presto, a storm arose at
the further end of The Enormous Room. We looked, and beheld The Clever
Man, thoroughly and efficiently angry, addressing, threatening and
frightening generally a constantly increasing group of
fellow-prisoners. After dismissing with a few sharp linguistic cracks
of the whip certain theories which seemed to be advanced by the bolder
auditors with a view to palliating, persuading and tranquillizing his
just wrath, he made for the nearest paillasse, turned it
topsy-turvy, slit it neatly and suddenly from stem to stern with a
jack-knife, banged the hay about, and then went with careful haste
through the pitifully minute baggage of the paillasse's owner.
Silence fell. No one, least of all the owner, said anything. From this
bed The Clever Man turned to the next, treated it in the same fashion,
searched it thoroughly, and made for the third. His motions were those
of a perfectly oiled machine. He proceeded up the length of the room,
varying his procedure only by sparing an occasional mattress, throwing paillasses about, tumbling sacs and boxes inside out; his face
somewhat paler than usual but otherwise immaculate and expressionless.
B. and I waited with some interest to see what would happen to our
belongings. Arriving at our beds he paused, seemed to consider a
moment, then not touching our paillasses proper, proceeded to
open our duffle bags and hunt half-heartedly, remarking that 'somebody
might have put it in'; and so passed on. 'What in hell is the matter
with that guy?' I asked of Fritz, who stood near us with a careless
air, some scorn and considerable amusement in his eyes. 'The bloody
fool's lost his knife,' was Fritz's answer. After completing his rounds
The Clever Man searched almost every one except ourselves and Fritz,
and absolutely subsided on his own paillasse muttering
occasionally 'if be found it' what he'd do. I think he never did find
it. It was a beautiful knife, John the Baigneur said. 'What did
it look like?' I demanded with some curiosity. 'It had a naked woman on
the handle,' Fritz said, his eyes sharp with amusement.
And every one agreed that it was a great pity that The Clever Man
had lost it, and every one began timidly to restore order and put his
personal belongings back in place and say nothing at all.
But what amused me was to see the little tot in a bluish-grey French
uniform, who—about when the search approached his paillasse
—suddenly hurried over to B. (his perspiring forehead more perspiring
than usual, his képi set at an angle of insanity) and hurriedly
presented B. with a long-lost German-silver folding camp-knife,
purchased by B. from a fellow-member of Vingt-et-Un who was
known to us as 'Lord Algie'—a lanky, effeminate, brittle, spotless
creature who was en route to becoming an officer and to whose
finicky tastes the fat-jowled A. tirelessly pandered for, doubtless,
financial considerations —which knife according to the trembling and
altogether miserable Garibaldi had 'been found' by him that day in the cour;
which was eminently and above all things curious, as the
treasure had been lost weeks before.
Which again brings us to The Skipper, whose elaborate couch has
already been mentioned—he was a Hollander and one of the strongest,
most gentle and altogether most pleasant of men, who used to sit on the
water-wagon under the shed in the cour and smoke his pipe
quietly of an afternoon. His stocky, even tightly-knit person, in its
heavy trousers and jersey sweater, culminated in a bronzed face which
was at once as kind and firm a piece of supernatural work as I think I
ever knew. His voice was agreeably modulated. He was utterly without
affectation. He had three sons. One evening a number of gendarmes came
to his house and told him that he was arrested, 'so my three sons and I
threw them all out of the window into the canal.'
I can still see the opening smile, squared kindness of cheeks, eyes
like cool keys—his heart always with the Sea.
The little Machine-Fixer
(le petit bonhomme avec le bras cassé
as he styled himself, referring to his little paralysed left arm) was
so perfectly different that I must let you see him next. He was
slightly taller than Garibaldi, about of a size with Monsieur Auguste.
He and Monsieur Auguste together were a fine sight, a sight which made
me feel that I came of a race of giants. I am afraid it was more or
less as giants that B. and I pitied the Machine-Fixer—still this was
not really our fault, since the Machine-Fixer came to us with his
troubles much as a very minute and helpless child comes to a very large
and omnipotent one. And God knows we did not only pity him, we liked
him—and if we could in some often ridiculous manner assist the
Machine-Fixer I think we nearly always did. The assistance to which I
refer was wholly spiritual; since the minute Machine-Fixer's colossal
self-pride eliminated any possibility of material assistance. 'What we
did, about every other night, was to entertain him (as we entertained
our other friends) chez nous; that is to say, he would come up
late every evening or every other evening, after his day's toil—for
he worked as co-balayeur with Garibaldi and he was a tremendous
worker; never have I seen a man who took his work so seriously and made
so much of it—to sit, with great care and very respectfully, upon one
or the other of our beds at the upper end of The Enormous Room, and
smoke a black small pipe, talking excitedly and strenuously and
fiercely about La Misère and himself and ourselves, often crying
a little but very bitterly, and from time to time striking matches with
a short angry gesture on the sole of his big,. almost square boot. His
little, abrupt, conscientious, relentless, difficult self lived always
in a single dimension—the somewhat beautiful dimension of Sorrow. He
was a Belgian, and one of two Belgians in whom I have ever felt the
least or slightest interest; for the Machine-Fixer might have been a
Polak or an Idol or an Esquimo so far as his nationality. affected his
soul. By and large, that was the trouble—the Machine-Fixer had a
soul. Put the bracelets on an ordinary man, tell him he's a bad egg,
treat him rough, shove him into the jug or its equivalent (you see I
have regard always for M. le Surveillant's delicate but no doubt
necessary distinction between La Ferté and Prison), and he will become
one of three animals—a rabbit, that is to say timid; a mote, that is
to say stupid; or a hyena, that is to say Harree the Hollander. But if,
by some fatal, some incomparably fatal accident, this man has a
soul—ah, then we have and truly have and have most horribly what is
called in La Ferté Macé by those who have known it, La Misère.
Monsieur Auguste's valiant attempts at cheerfulness and the natural
buoyancy of his gentle disposition in a slight degree protected him
from La Misère. The Machine-Fixer was lost. By nature he was
tremendously sensible, he was the very apotheosis of l'âme
sensible in fact. His sensibilité made him shoulder not only
the inexcusable injustice which he had suffered but the incomparable
and overwhelming total injustice which every one had suffered and was
suffering en masse day and night in The Enormous Room. His woes,
had they not sprung from perfectly real causes, might have suggested a
persecution complex, As it happened there was no possible method of
relieving them—they could be relieved in only one way: by Liberty.
Not simply by his personal liberty, but by the liberation of every
single fellow-captive as well. His extraordinarily personal anguish
could not be selfishly appeased by a merely partial righting, in his
own case, of the Wrong—the ineffable and terrific and to be perfectly
avenged Wrong-done to those who ate and slept and wept and played cards
within that abominable and unyielding Symbol which enclosed the
immutable vileness of our common life. It was necessary, for its
appeasement. that a shaft of bright lightning suddenly and entirely
should wither the human and material structures which stood always
between our filthy and pitiful selves and the unspeakable cleanness of
B. recalls that the little Machine-Fixer said or hinted that he had
been either a socialist or an anarchist when he was young. So that is
doubtless why we had the privilege of his society. After all, it is
highly improbable that this poor socialist suffered more at the hands
of the great and good French government than did many a C.O. at the
hands of the great and good American government; or—since all great
governments are per se good and vice versa—than did
many a man in general who was cursed with a talent for thinking during
the warlike moments recently passed; during that is to say an epoch
when the g. and g. nations demanded of their respective peoples the
exact antithesis to thinking; said antithesis being vulgarly called
Belief. Lest which statement prejudice some members of the American
Legion in the disfavour of the Machine-Fixer or rather of
myself—awful thought—I hasten to assure every one that the
Machine-Fixer was a highly moral person. His morality was at times
almost gruesome; as when he got started on the inhabitants of the
women's quarters. Be it understood that the Machine-Fixer was human,
that he would take a letter—provided he liked the sender—and
deliver it to the sender's adorée without a murmur. That was
simply a good deed done for a friend; it did not imply that he approved
of the friend's choice, which for strictly moral reasons he invariably
and to the friend's very face violently deprecated. To this little man
of perhaps forty-five, with a devoted wife waiting for him in Belgium
(a wife whom he worshipped and loved more than he worshipped and loved
anything in the world, a wife whose fidelity to her husband and whose
trust and confidence in him echoed in the letters which—when we three
were alone—the little Machine-Fixer tried always to read to us, never
getting beyond the first sentence or two before he broke down and
sobbed from his feet to his eyes) , to such a little person his
reaction to les femmes was more than natural. It was in fact
'Women, to him at least, were of two kinds and two kinds only. There
were les femmes honnêtes and there were les putains. In
La Ferté, he informed us—and as balayeur he ought to have
known whereof he spoke—there were as many as three ladies of the
former variety. One of them he talked with often. She told him her
story. She was a Russian, of a very fine education, living peacefully
in Paris up to the time that she wrote to her relatives a letter
containing the following treasonable sentiment:
'Je m'ennuie pour les neiges de la Russie.'
The letter had been read by the French censor, as had B.'s letter;
and her arrest and transference from her home in Paris to La Ferté Macé
promptly followed. She was as intelligent as she was virtuous and had
nothing to do with her frailer sisters, so the Machine-Fixer informed
us with a quickly passing flash of joy. Which sisters (his little
forehead knotted itself and his big bushy eyebrows plunged together
wrathfully) were wicked and indecent and utterly despicable disgraces
to their sex—and this relentless Joseph fiercely and jerkily related
how only the day before he had repulsed the painfully obvious
solicitations of a Madame Potiphar by turning his back, like a good
Christian, upon temptation and marching out of the room, broom tightly
clutched in virtuous hands.
(meaning myself) 'savez-vous'—with a terrific gesture which
consisted in snapping his thumbnail between his teeth—'ÇA PUE!'
Then he added: 'And what would my wife say to me, if I came home to
her and presented her with that which this creature had presented to
me? They are animals-' cried the little Machine-Fixer—'all they want
is a man, they don't care who he is, they want a man. But they won't
get me!'—and he warned us to beware.
Especially interesting, not to say valuable, was the Machine-Fixer's
testimony concerning the more or less regular 'inspections' (which were
held by the very same doctor who had 'examined' me in the course of my
first day at La Ferté) for les femmes; presumably in the
interests of public safety. Les femmes, quoth the Machine-Fixer,
who had been many times an eye-witness of this proceeding, lined up
talking and laughing and—crime of crimes-smoking cigarettes, outside
the bureau of M. le Médecin Major. 'Une femme entre. Elle se
lève les jupes jusqu'au menton et se met sur le banc. Le médecin major
la regarde. Il dit de suite "Bon. C'est tout." Elle sort. Une autre
entre. La même chose. "Bon. C'est fini" ... M'sieu Jean: prenez garde!'
And he struck a match fiercely on the black, almost square boot
which lived on the end of his little worn trouser-leg, bending his
small body forward as he did so, and bringing the flame upward in a
violent curve. And the flame settled on his little black pipe. And his
cheeks sucked until they must have met, and a slow unwilling noise
arose, and with the return of his cheeks a small coIourless wisp of
possibly smoke came upon the air. That's not tobacco. Do you know what
it is? It's wood! And I sit here smoking wood in my pipe when my wife
is sick with worrying . . . 'M'sieu Jean'—leaning forward with
jaw protruding and a oneness of bristly eyebrows, 'Ces grands
messieurs qui ne se foutent pas mal si l'on CREVE de faim, savez-vous,
ils croient chacun qu'il est Le Bon Dieu LUI-Même. Et M'sieu jean,
savez-vous, ils sont tous'—leaning right in my face, the withered
hand making a pitiful fist of itself—'Ils. Sont. Des. CRAPULES!'
And his ghastly and toy-like wizened and minute arm would try to
make a pass at their lofty lives. O gouvernement français, I
think it was not very clever of You to put this terrible doll in La
Ferté; I should have left him in Belgium with his little doll-wife if I
had been You; for when Governments are found dead there is always a
little doll on top of them, pulling and tweaking with his little, hands
to get back the microscopic knife which sticks firmly in the quiet meat
of their hearts.
One day only did I see him happy or nearly happy— when a Belgian
baroness for some reason arrived, and was bowed and fed and wined by
the delightfully respectful and perfectly behaved Official
Captors—'and I know of her in Belgium, she is a great lady, she is
very powerful and she is generous; I fell on my knees before her, and
implored her in the name of my wife and Le Bon Dieu to intercede
in my behalf; and she has made a note of it, and she told me she would
write the Belgian King and I will be free in a few weeks, FREE!'
The little Machine-Fixer, I happen to know, did finally leave La
... In the kitchen worked a very remarkable person. Who wore sabots.
And sang continuously in a very subdued way to himself as he stirred
the huge black kettles. 'We, that is to say B. and I, became acquainted
with Afrique very gradually. You did not know Afrique suddenly. You
became cognizant of Afrique gradually. You were in the cour, staring at
ooze and dead trees, when a figure came striding from the cuisine lifting its big wooden feet after it rhythmically, unwinding a
parti-coloured scarf from its waist as it came, and singing to itself
in a subdued manner a jocular and—I fear unprintable ditty concerning
Paradise. The figure entered the little gate to the cour in a
business-like way, unwinding continuously, and made stridingly for the cabinet
situated up against the stone-wall which separated the
promenading sexes—dragging behind it on the ground a tail of
ever-increasing dimensions. The cabinet reached, tail and figure
parted company; the former fell inert to the limitless mud, the latter
disappeared into the contrivance with a Jack-in-the-box rapidity. From
which contrivance the continuing ditty,
'le paradis est une maison . . .'
—Or again, it's a lithe pausing poise, intensely intelligent,
certainly I sensitive, delivering dryingly a series of sure and rapid
hints that penetrate the fabric of stupidity accurately and
whisperingly; dealing one after another brief and poignant
instupidities, distinct and uncompromising, crisp and altogether
arrowlike. The poise has a cigarette in its hand, which cigarette it
has just pausingly rolled from material furnished by a number of
carefully saved butts (whereof Afrique's pockets are invariably full).
Its neither old nor young but rather keen face hoards a pair of
greyish-blue witty eyes, which face and eyes are directed upon us
through the open door of a little room. Which little room is in the
rear of the cuisine; a little, room filled with the
inexpressibly clean and soft odour of newly-cut wood. Which wood we are
pretending to split and pile for kindling. As a matter of fact we are
enjoying Afrique's conversation, escaping from the bleak and profoundly
muddy cour, and (under the watchful auspices of the Cook, who
plays sentinel) drinking something approximating coffee with something
approximating sugar therein. All this because the Cook thinks we're boches
and being the Cook and a
consequently peculiarly concerned for our welfare.
Afrique is talking about
les journaux, and to what prodigious
pains they go to not tell the truth; or he is telling how a native
stole upon him in the night armed with a spear two metres long, once on
a time in a certain part of the world; or he is predicting that the
Germans will march upon the French by way of Switzerland; or he is
teaching us to count and swear in Arabic; or he is having a very good
time in the Midi as a tinker, sleeping under a tree outside of a little
And Le Chef is grunting, without lifting his old eyes from the
dissection of an obstreperous cabbage,
'Dépêche-toi, voici le planton'
and we are something like happy. For it is singularly and pleasantly
warm in the cuisine. And Afrique's is an alert kind of mind, which has
been and seen and observed and penetrated and known—a bit there,
somewhat here, chiefly everywhere. Its specialty being politics in
which case Afrique has had the inestimable advantage of observing
without being observed—until La Ferté; whereupon Afrique goes on
uninterruptedly observing, recognizing that a significant angle of
observation has been presented to him gratis. Les journaux and
politics in general are topics upon which Afrique can say more, without
the slightest fatigue, than a book as big as my two thumbs
'Mais oui, ils ont cherché de l'eau et puis je leur donne du
café,' Monsieur, or more properly Mynheer le chef, is
expostulating; the planton is stupidly protesting that
we are supposed to be upstairs; Afrique is busily stirring a huge black
pot, winking gravely at us and singing softly:
'Le Bon Dieu, Saoûl comme un cochon . . .'
Now that I have mentioned the pleasures of the kitchen, it is
perhaps à propos that I say a word upon the displeasures of Brown
Bread. He was a Belgian, and therefore chewed and spat juice night and
day from the unutterably stolid face of an overgrown farmer. The only
words in English which he was able to articulate were 'Me too'—when
cigarettes were handed round by somebody who had got some money from
somewhere. I hasten to say that the name which we gave him is a
contraction of an occult sound, or rather rumbling shout, uttered by
the Surveillant when he leaned from a little window which faced
the cour and announced the names of those fortunati for
whom letters (duly opened, read, and their contents approved by the Secrétaire, alias
the weak-eyed biped) had somehow emanated from
the mystère of the outer world. The Surveillant, his
glasses having tremulously inspected a letter or a carte postale
—while all les hommes breathlessly attended, in the mud, upon
his slightest murmur—successfully would (to the great disappointment
of everyone else) pronounce
whereat this ten-foot personage would awkwardly advance in his
squeaky black puttees, shifting his quid with a violent effort in order
to reply simperingly:
'Oui, Monsieur le Surveillant!
For the rest, he was perfectly stupid, inclined to be morose, and
had friends very much like himself who shared his nationality and whose
moroseness and stupidity I do not particularly care to remember. He was
a Belgian, and that's all. By which I mean that I am uncharitable
enough to not care what happened to him or for what stupid and morose
crime he was doing penance at La Ferté under the benignant auspices of
the French government.
Just as well perhaps, since my search for causes in this connection
has proved futile; a fact which by this time the reader realizes.
Better to have let a sleeping mystère lie, I suppose or no I
don't, for The Man Who Played Too Late did that very thing and thereby
shrouded the inexplicable in a nimbus of inaccuracy. Perhaps because he
felt, in his blond, hungrily cadaverous way, that to have been arrested
for functioning (as a member of an orchestra) after closing time in
Paris was a humiliation too obvious to require analysis, Be that as it
may, I conclude this particular group of portraits with his own remark,
which frames them after all rather nicely:
'Every one is here for something.'
THE inhabitants of The Enormous Room whose portraits I have
attempted in the preceding chapter were, with one or two exceptions,
inhabiting at the time of my arrival. Now the thing which above all
things made death worth living and life worth dying at La Ferté Macé
was the kinetic aspect of that institution; the arrivals, singly or in
groups, of nouveaux of sundry nationalities whereby our
otherwise more or less simple existence was happily complicated, our
putrescent placidity shaken by a fortunate violence. Before, however,
undertaking this aspect I shall attempt to represent for my own benefit
as well as the reader's certain more obvious elements of that stasis
which greeted the candidates for disintegration upon their admittance
to our select, not to say distinguished, circle. Or: I shall describe,
briefly, Apollyon and the instruments of his power, which instruments
are three in number: Fear, Women, and Sunday.
By Apollyon I mean a very definite fiend. A fiend who, secluded in
the sumptuous and luxurious privacy of his own personal bureau (which as a rule no one of lesser rank than the
allowed, so far as I might observe—and I observed—to enter)
compelled to the unimaginable meanness of his will, by means of
the three potent instruments in question, all—within the sweating
walls of La Ferté—that was once upon a time human. I mean a very
complete Apollyon, a Satan whose word is dreadful not because it is
painstakingly unjust but because it is incomprehensibly omnipotent. I
mean, in short, Monsieur le Directeur.
I shall discuss first of all
Monsieur le Directeur's
Fear was instilled by three means into the erstwhile human entities
whose presence at La Ferté gave Apollyon his job. The three means were:
his subordinates, who being one and all fearful of his power directed
their energies to but one end—the production in ourselves of a
similar emotion; two forms of punishment, which supplied said
subordinates with a weapon over any of us who refused to find room for
this desolating emotion in his heart of hearts; and, finally, direct
contact with his unutterable personality.
Beneath the Demon was the
I have already
described the Surveillant. I wish to say, however, that in my
opinion the Surveillant was the most decent official at La
Ferté. I pay him this tribute gladly and honestly. To me, at least, be
was kind: to the majority he was inclined to be lenient. I honestly and
gladly believe that. the Surveillant was incapable of that
quality whose innateness, in the case of his superior, rendered that
gentleman a (to my mind) perfect representative of the Almighty French
Government: I believe that the Surveillant did not enjoy being
cruel, that he was not absolutely without pity or understanding. As a
personality I therefore pay him my respects. I am myself incapable of
caring whether, as a tool of the Devil, he will find the bright
firelight of Hell too warm for him or no.
were the Secrétaire,
Richard, the Cook, and the plantons. The first I have described
sufficiently, since he was an obedient and negative—albeit peculiarly
responsible—cog in the machine of decomposition. Of Monsieur Richard,
whose portrait is included in the account of my first day at La Ferté,
I wish to say that he had a very comfortable room of his own filled
with primitive and otherwise imposing medicines; the walls of this
comfortable room being beauteously adorned by some fifty magazine
covers representing the female form in every imaginable state of
undress, said magazine-covers being taken chiefly from such amorous
periodicals as Le Sourire and the old stand-by of indecency, La Vie Parisienne.
Also Monsieur Richard kept a pot of geraniums
upon his window-ledge, which haggard and aged-looking symbol of joy he
doubtless (in his spare moments) peculiarly enjoyed watering. The Cook
is by this time familiar to my reader. I beg to say that I highly
approve of The Cook; exclusive of the fact that the coffee, which went
up to The Enormous Room tous les matins, was made every day with
the same grounds plus a goodly injection of checkerberry—for the
simple reason that the Cook had to supply our captors and especially
Apollyon with real coffee, whereas what he supplied to les hommes made no difference. The same is true of sugar: our morning coffee, in
addition to being a water-thin, black, muddy, stinking liquid,
contained not the smallest suggestion of sweetness, whereas the coffee
which went to the officials—and the coffee which B. and I drank in
recompense for 'catching water'—had all the sugar you could possibly
wish for. The poor Cook was fined one day as a result of his economies,
subsequent to a united action on the part of the fellow-sufferers. It
was a day when a gent immaculately dressed appeared—after duly
warning the Fiend that he was about to inspect the Fiend's ménage—an,
I think, public official of Orne.
Judas (at the time
chef de chambre),
supported by the sole
and unique indignation of all his fellow-prisoners save two or three
out of whom Fear had made rabbits or moles, early carried the pail
(which by common agreement not one of us had touched that day)
downstairs, along the hall, and up one flight—where he encountered
the Directeur, Surveillant and Handsome Stranger all amicably
and pleasantly conversing. Judas set the pail down; bowed; and begged,
as spokesman for the united male gender of La Ferté Macé, that the
quality of the.. coffee be examined. 'We won't any of us drink it,
begging your pardon, Messieurs,' he claims that he said. What happened
then is highly amusing. The petit balayeur, an eye-witness of
the proceeding, described it to me as follows:
He was horribly
angry. "Oui, Monsieur," said the maître de chambre
humbly.—"Pourquoi?" thundered the
it's undrinkable," the maître de chambre said
quietly.—"Undrinkable? Nonsense!" cried the Directeur furiously.—"Be so good as to taste it,
Monsieur le Directeur."——
-"I taste it? Why should I taste it? The coffee is perfectly good,
plenty good for you men. This is ridiculous."—"Why don't we all taste
it?" suggested the Surveillant ingratiatingly.—"Why, yes,"
said the Visitor mildly.—"Taste it? Of course not. This
is—ridiculous and I shall punish—"—"I should like, if you don't
mind, to try a little," the Visitor said.—-"Oh well, of course, if
you like," the Directeur mildly agreed. "Give me a cup of that
coffee, you!'"—"With pleasure, sir," said the maître de chambre.
The Directeur—M'sieu' Jean,
you would have burst
laughing-seized the cup, lifted it to his lips, swallowed with a
frightful expression (his eyes almost popping out of his head) and
cried fiercely, "DELICIOUS!" The Surveillant took a cupful;
sipped; tossed the coffee away, looking as if he had been hit in the
eyes, and remarked, "Ah." The maître de chambre—M'sieu' Jean
he is clever—scooped the third cupful from the very bottom of the
pail, and very politely, with a big bow, handed it to the Visitor; who
took it, touched it to his lips, turned perfectly green, and cried out "Impossible!" M'sieu' Jean, we all thought-the
the Surveillant and the maître de chambre and
myself—that he was going to vomit. He leaned against the wall a
moment, quite green; then recovering said faintly—"The Kitchen." The
Directeur looked very nervous and shouted, trembling all over, "Yes
indeed! We'll see the Cook about this perfectly impossible coffee. I
had no idea that my men were getting such coffee. It's abominable!
That's what it is, an outrage!"—And they all tottered downstairs to
the Cook; and, M'sieu' Jean, they searched the kitchen; and what do you
think? They found ten pounds of coffee and twelve pounds of sugar all
neatly hidden away, that the Cook had been saving for himself out of
our allowance. He's a beast, the Cook!'
I must say that, although the morning coffee improved enormously for
as much as a week, it descended afterwards to its original level of
The Cook, I may add, officiated three times a week at a little table
to the left as you entered the dining-room. Here he stood, and threw at
every one (as every one entered) a hunk of the most extraordinary viande which I have ever had the privilege of trying to
masticate—it could not be tasted. It was pale and leathery. B. and
myself often gave ours away in our hungriest moments; which statement
sounds as if we were generous to others, whereas the reason for these
donations was that we couldn't eat, let alone stand the sight of, this
staple of diets. We had to do our donating on the sly, since the chef always gave us choice pieces and we were anxious not to hurt
the chef's feelings. There was a good deal of spasmodic
protestation à propos la viande, but the Cook always bullied it
down—nor was the meat his fault; since, from the miserable carcasses
which I have often seen carried into the kitchen from without, the Cook
had to select something which would suit the meticulous stomach of the
Lord of Hell, as also the less meticulous digestive organs of his
minions; and it was only after every planton had got a piece of viande
to his plantonic taste that the captives, female and male,
came in for consideration.
On the whole, I think I never envied the Cook his strange and
difficult, not to say gruesome, job. With the men en masse he
was bound to be unpopular. To the goodwill of those above he was
necessarily more or less a slave. And on the whole I liked the Cook
very much, as did B. for the very good and sufficient reason that he
liked us both.
About the plantons
I have something to say, something which
it gives me huge pleasure to say. I have to say, about the plantons, that as a bunch they struck me at the time and will always impress me
as the next to the lowest species of human organism; the lowest, in my
experienced estimation, being the gendarme proper. The plantons were, with one exception—he of the black holster with whom I collided
on the first day—changed from time to time. Again with this one
exception, they were (as I have noted) apparently réformés who
were enjoying a vacation from the trenches in the lovely environs of
Orne. Nearly all of them were witless. Every one of them had something
the matter with him physically as well. For instance, one planton had a large wooden hand. Another was possessed of a long unmanageable
left leg made, as nearly as I could discover, of tin. A third had a
huge glass eye.
These peculiarities of physique, however, did not inhibit the
plantons from certain essential and normal desires. On the
contrary. The plantons probably realized that, in competition
with the male world at large, their glass legs and tin hands and wooden
eyes would not stand a Chinaman's chance of winning the affection and
admiration of the fair sex. At any rate they were always on the alert
for opportunities to triumph over the admiration and affection of les femmes
at La Ferté, where their success was not endangered by
competition. They had the bulge on everybody; and they used what bulge
they had to such good advantage that one of them, during my stay, was
pursued with a revolver by their sergeant, captured, locked up, and
shipped off for court-martial on the charge of disobedience and
threatening the life of a superior officer. He had been caught with the
goods—that is to say, in the girl's cabinot—by said
superior: an incapable, strutting, undersized, bepimpled person in a
bright uniform who spent his time assuming the poses of a general for
the benefit of the ladies; of his admiration for whom and his
intentions toward whom he made no secret. By all means one of the most
disagreeable petty bullies whom I ever beheld. This arrest of a planton was, so long as I inhabited La Ferté, the only case in
which abuse of the weaker sex was punished. That attempts at abuse were
frequent I know from allusions and direct statements made in the
letters which passed by way of the balayeur from the girls to
their captive admirers. I might say that the senders of these letters,
whom I shall attempt to portray presently, have my unmitigated and
unqualified admiration. By all odds they possessed the most terrible
vitality and bravery of any human beings, women or men, whom it has
ever been my extraordinary luck to encounter, or ever will be (I am
absolutely sure) in this world.
The duties of the
plantons were those simple and
obvious duties which only very stupid persons can perfectly fulfil,
namely: to take turns guarding the building and its inhabitants; to not
accept bribes, whether in the form of matches, cigarettes or
conversation, from their prisoners; to accompany anyone who went
anywhere outside the walls (as did occasionally the balayeurs, to transport baggage; the men who did
and the catchers
of water for the cook, who proceeded as far as the hydrant situated on
the outskirts of the town—a momentous distance of perhaps five
hundred feet) ; and finally to obey any and all orders from all and any
superiors without thinking. Plantons were supposed—but only
supposed—to report any schemes for escaping which they might overbear
during their watch upon les femmes et les hommes en promenade. Of course they never overheard any, since the least intelligent of the
watched was a paragon of wisdom by comparison with the watchers. B. and
I had a little ditty about Plantons, of which I can quote
(unfortunately) only the first line and refrain,
'A planton loved lady once
(Cabbages and cauliflowers!)'
It was a very fine song. In considering my remarks upon
I must, in justice to my subject, mention the three prime plantonic
virtues—they were (1) beauty, as regards face and person and bearing,
(2) chivalry, as regards women, (3) heroism, as regards males.
The somewhat unique and amusing appearance of the
plantons rather militated against than served to inculcate Fear—it was
therefore not wonderful that they and the desired emotion were
supported by two strictly enforced punishments, punishments which were
meted out with equal and unflinching severity to both sexes alike. The
less undesirable punishment was known as pain sec—which Fritz,
shortly after my arrival, got for smashing a window-pane by accident;
and which Harree and Pompom, the incorrigibles, were getting most of
the time. This punishment consisted in denying to the culprit all
nutriment save two stone-hard morsels of dry bread per diem. The
culprit's intimate friends, of course, made a point of eating only a
portion of their own morsels of soft heavy sour bread (we got two a
day, with each soupe) and presenting the culprit with the rest.
The common method of getting pain sec was also a simple one—it
was for a man to wave, shout or make other signs audible or visible to
an inhabitant of the women's quarters; and, for a girl, to be seen at
her window by the Directeur at any time during the morning and
afternoon promenades of the men. The punishment for sending a letter to
a girl might possibly be pain sec, but was more often—I
pronounce the word even now with a sinking of the heart, though
curiously enough I escaped that for which it stands—cabinot.
There were (as already mentioned) a number of
sometimes referred to as cachots by persons of linguistic
propensities. To repeat myself slightly: at least three were situated
on the ground floor; and these were used whenever possible in
preference to the one or ones upstairs, for the reason that they were
naturally more damp and chill and dark and altogether more dismal and
unhealthy. Dampness and cold were considerably increased by the
substitution, for a floor, of two or three planks resting here and
there in mud. I am now describing what my eyes saw, not what was shown
to the inspectors on their rare visits to the Directeur's little
shop for making criminals. I know what these occasional visitors
beheld, because it, too, I have seen with my own eyes: seen the two balayeurs
staggering downstairs with a bed (consisting of a high
iron frame, a huge mattress of delicious thickness, spotless sheets,
warm blankets, and a sort of quilt neatly folded over all) ; seen this
bed placed by the panting sweepers in the thoroughly cleaned and
otherwise immaculate cabinot at the foot of the stairs and
opposite the cuisine, the well-scrubbed door being left wide
open. I saw this done as I was going to dinner. While les hommes were upstairs recovering from
la soupe, the
gentlemen-inspectors were invited downstairs to look at a specimen of
the Directeur's kindness—a kindness which he could not
restrain even in the case of those who were guilty of some terrible
wrong. (The little Belgian with the Broken Arm, alias the
Machine-Fixer, missed not a word nor a gesture of all this; and
described the scene to me with an indignation which threatened his
sanity.)—Then, while les hommes were in the cour for
the afternoon, the balayeurs were rushed to The Enormous Room,
which they cleaned to beat the band with the fear of Hell in them;
after which, the Directeur led his amiable guests leisurely
upstairs and showed them the way the men kept their quarters; kept them
without dictation on the part of the officials, so fond were they of
what was to them one and all more than a delightful temporary
residence—was in fact a home. From The Enormous Room the procession
wended a gentle way to the women's quarters (scrubbed and swept in
anticipation of their arrival) and so departed; conscious—no
doubt—that in the Directeur France had found a rare specimen
of whole-hearted and efficient generosity.
Upon being sentenced to
cabinot, whether for writing an
intercepted letter, fighting, threatening a planton, of
committing some minor offence for the nth time, a man took one blanket
from his bed, carried it downstairs to the cachot, and
disappeared therein for a night or many days and nights as the case
might be. Before entering he. was thoroughly searched and temporarily
deprived of the contents of his pockets, whatever they might include.
It was made certain that he had no cigarettes or tobacco in any other
form upon his person, and no matches. The door was locked behind him
and double and triple locked—to judge by the sound—by a planton,
usually the Black Holster, who on such occasions produced a ring of
enormous keys suggestive of a burlesque jailor. Within the stone walls
of his dungeon (into which a beam of light no bigger than a ten-cent
piece, and in some cases no light at all, penetrated) the culprit could
shout and scream his or her heart out if he or she liked, without
serious annoyance to His Majesty King Satan. I wonder how many times, en route
to la soupe
or The Enormous Room or
promenade, I have heard the unearthly smouldering laughter of girls or
of men entombed within the drooling greenish walls of La Ferté Macé. A
dozen times, I suppose, I have seen a friend of the entombed stoop
adroitly and shove a cigarette or a morceau of chocolat under the door, to the girls or the men or the girl or man screaming,
shouting, and pommelling faintly behind that very door—but, you would
say by the sound, a good part of a mile away ... Ah well, more of this
later, when we come to les femmes on their own account.
The third method employed to throw Fear into the minds of his
captives lay, as I have said, in the sight of the Captor Himself. And
this was by far the most efficient method.
He loved to suddenly dash upon the girls when they were carrying
their slops along the hall and down-stairs, as (in common with the men)
they had to do at least twice every morning and twice every afternoon.
The corvée of girls and men were of course arranged so as not to
coincide; yet somehow or other they managed to coincide on the average
about once a week, or if not coincide, at any rate approach
coincidence. On such occasions, as often as not under the planton's very stupid nose, a kiss or an embrace would be stolen—provocative of
much fierce laughter and some scurrying. Or else, while the moneyed
captives (including B. and Cummings) were waiting their turn to enter
the bureau de M. le Gestionnaire, or even were ascending the
stairs with a planton behind them, en route to Mecca,
along the hall would come five or six women staggering and carrying
huge pails full to the brim of everyone knew what; five or six heads,
lowered, ill-dressed bodies tense with effort, free arms rigidly
extended from the shoulder downward and outward in a plane at right
angles to their difficult progress, and thereby helping to balance the
disconcerting load—all embarrassed, some humiliated, others
desperately at ease along they would come under the steady sensual gaze
of the men, under a gaze which seemed to eat them alive ... and then
one of them would laugh with the laughter which is neither pitiful nor
terrible, but horrible ...
And BANG! would a door fly open, and ROAR! a well-dressed animal
about five feet six inches in height, with prominent cuffs and a
sportive tie, the altogether decently and neatly-clothed thick-built
figure squirming from top to toe with anger, the large head trembling
and white-faced beneath a flourishing mane of coarse blackish bristly
perhaps hair, the arm crooked at the elbow and shaking a huge fist of
pinkish, well-manicured flesh, the distinct, cruel, brightish eyes
sprouting from their sockets under bushily enormous black eyebrows, the
big, weak, coarse mouth extended almost from ear to ear and spouting
invective, the soggy, brutal lips clinched upward and backward showing
the huge horse-like teeth to the frothshot gums.
And I saw once a little girl eleven years-old scream in terror and
drop her pail of slops, spilling most of it on her feet; and seize it
in a clutch of frail child's fingers, and stagger, sobbing and shaking,
past the Fiend—one hand held over her contorted face to shield her
from the Awful Thing of Things—to the head of the stairs; where she
collapsed, and was half-carried, half-dragged by one of the older ones
to the floor below, while another older one picked up her pail and
lugged this and her own hurriedly downward.
And after the last head had disappeared,
Monsieur le Directeur
continued to rave and shake and tremble for as much as ten seconds, his
shoe-brush mane crinkling with black anger—then, turning suddenly
upon les hommes (who cowered up against the wall as men cower up
against a material thing in the presence of the supernatural ) he
roared and shook his pinkish fist at us till the gold stud in his
immaculate cuff walked out upon the wad of clenching flesh:
'ET VOUS-PRENEZ GARDE—SI JE VOUS ATTRAPE AVEC LES FEMMES UNE AUTRE
FOIS JE VOUS FOUS—-AU CABINOT POUR QUINZE JOURS, TOUS—TOUS—'
for as much as half a minute; then turning suddenly his
round-shouldered big back he adjusted his cuffs, muttering PROSTITUTES
and WHORES and DIRTY FILTH OF WOMEN, crammed his big fists into his
trousers, pulled in his chin till his fattish jowl rippled along the
square jaws, panted, grunted, very completely satisfied, very
contented, rather proud of himself, took a strutting stride or two in
his expensive shiny boots, and shot all at once through the open door
which he SLAMMED after him.
À propos the particular incident described for the purposes of
illustration, I wish to state that I believe in miracles: the miracle
being that I did not knock the spit-covered mouthful of teeth and
jabbering, brutish, out-thrust jowl (which certainly were not farther
than eighteen inches from me) through the bull neck bulging in its
spotless collar. For there are times when one almost decides not to
merely observe ... besides which, never in my life before had I wanted
to kill, to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder. Perhaps some
day. Unto God I hope so.
Now I will try to give the reader a glimpse of the 'Women of La
The little Machine-Fixer, as I said in the preceding chapter,
divided them into Good and Bad. He said there were as much as three
Good ones, of which three he had talked to one and knew her story.
Another of the three Good Women obviously was Margherite—a big,
strong female who did washing, and who was a permanent resident because
she had been careless enough to be born of German parents. I think I
spoke with number three on the day I waited to be examined by the
Commission—a Belgian girl, whom I shall mention later along with that
incident. Whereat, by process of elimination, we arrive at les putains, whereof God may know how many there were at La Ferté, but
I certainly do not. To les putains in general I have already
made my deep and sincere bow. I should like to speak here of four
individuals. They are Celina, Lena, Lily, Renée.
Celina Tek was an extraordinarily beautiful animal. Her firm girl's
body emanated a supreme vitality. It was neither tall nor short, its
movements nor graceful nor awkward. It came and went with a certain
sexual velocity, a velocity whose health and vigour made everyone in La
Ferté seem puny and old. Her deep sensual voice had a coarse richness.
Her face, dark and young, annihilated easily the ancient and greyish
walls. Her wonderful hair was shockingly black. Her perfect teeth, when
she smiled, reminded you of an animal. The cult of Isis never
worshipped a more deep luxurious smile. This face, framed in the night
of its hair, seemed (as it moved at the window overlooking the cour
des femmes) inexorably and colossally young. The body was
absolutely and fearlessly alive. In the impeccable and altogether
admirable desolation of La Ferté and the Normandy autumn, Celina,
easily and fiercely moving, was a kinesis.
The French Government must have already recognized this; it called
Lena, also a Belgian, always and fortunately just missed being a
type which in the American language (sometimes called 'Slang') has a
definite nomenclature. Lena had the makings of an ordinary broad. And
yet, thanks to La Misère, a certain indubitable
personality became gradually rescued. A tall hard face about which was
loosely pitched some hay-coloured hair. Strenuous and mutilated hands.
A loose, raucous way of laughing, which contrasted well with Celina's
definite gurgling titter. Energy rather than vitality. A certain power
and roughness about her laughter. She never smiled. She laughed loudly
and obscenely and always. A woman.
Lily was a German girl, who looked unbelievably old, wore white or
once white dresses, had a sort of drawling scream in her throat besides
a thick deadly cough, and floundered leanly under the eyes of men. Upon
the skinny neck of Lily a face had been set for all the world to look
upon and be afraid. The face itself was made of flesh green and almost
putrescent. In each check a bloody spot. Which was not rouge, but the
flower which consumption plants in the cheek of its favourite. A face
vulgar and vast and heavy-featured, about which a smile was always
flopping uselessly. Occasionally Lily grinned, showing several
monstrously decayed and perfectly yellow teeth, which teeth usually
were smoking a cigarette. Her bluish hands were very interestingly
dead; the fingers were nervous, they lived in cringing bags of freckled
skin, they might almost be alive.
She was perhaps eighteen years old.
Renée, the fourth member of the circle, was always well-dressed and
somehow chic. Her silhouette had character, from the waved coiffure to
the enormously high heels. Had Renée been able to restrain a perfectly
toothless smile she might possibly have passed for a jeune gonzesse. She was not. The smile was ample and black. You saw through it into the
back of her neck. You felt as if her life was in danger when she
smiled, as it probably was. Her skin was not particularly tired. But
Renée was old, older than Lena by several years; perhaps twenty-five,
which for a lady of her profession is very old. Also about Renée there
was a certain dangerous fragility of unhealth. And yet Renée was hard,
immeasurably hard. And accurate. Her exact movements were the movements
of a mechanism. Including her voice, which had a purely mechanical
timbre. She could do two things with this voice and two only—screech
and boom. At times she tried to chuckle and almost fell apart. Renée
was in fact dead. In looking at her for the first time, I realized that
there may be something stylish about death.
This first time was interesting in the extreme. It was Lily's
birthday. We looked out of the windows which composed one side of the
otherwise windowless Enormous Room; looked down, and saw—just outside
the wall of the building—Celina, Lena, Lily and a new girl who was
Renée. They were all individually intoxicated. Celina was joyously
tight. Renée was stiffly bunnied. Lena was raucously pickled. Lily,
floundering and staggering and tumbling and whirling, was utterly
soused. She was all tricked out in an erstwhile dainty dress, white,
and with ribbons. Celina (as always) wore black. Lena had on a rather
heavy striped sweater and skirt. Renée was immaculate in tight-fitting
satin or something of the sort; she seemed to have somehow escaped from
a doll's house overnight. About the group were a number of plantons, roaring with laughter, teasing, insulting, encouraging, from time to
time attempting to embrace the ladies. Celina gave one of them a
terrific box on the ear. The mirth of the others was redoubled. Lily
spun about and fell down, moaning and coughing, and screaming about her
fiancé in Belgium; what a handsome young fellow he was, how he had
promised to marry her ... shouts of enjoyment from the plantons. Lena had to sit down or else fall down, so she sat down with a good
deal of dignity, her back against the wall, and in that position
attempted to execute a kind of dance. Les plantons rocked and
applauded. Celina smiled beautifully at the men who were staring from
every window of The Enormous Room, and, with a supreme effort, went
over and dragged Renée (who had neatly and accurately folded up with
machine-like rapidity in the mud) through the doorway and into the
house. Eventually Lena followed her example, capturing Lily en
route. The scene must have consumed all of twenty minutes. The Plantons
were so mirth-stricken that they had to sit down and rest
under the washing-shed. Of all the inhabitants of The Enormous Room,
Fritz and Harree and Pompom and Bathhouse John enjoyed it most. I
should include Jan, whose chin nearly rested on the window-sill with
the little body belonging to it fluttering in an ugly interested way
all the time. That Bathhouse John's interest was largely cynical is
evidenced by the remarks which he threw out between spittings—'Une
section mesdames!"—A la gare!' 'Aux armes tout le monde!' etc.
With the exception of these enthusiastic watchers, the other captives
evidenced vague amusement—excepting Count Bragard, who said with
lofty disgust that it was 'no better than a bloody knocking 'ouse, Mr.
Cummings,' and Monsieur Petairs, whose annoyance amounted to agony. Of
course these twain were, comparatively speaking, old men ...
The four female incorrigibles encountered less difficulty in
attaining cabinot than any four specimens of incorrigibility
among les hommes. Not only were they placed in dungeon vile with
a frequency which amounted to continuity; their sentences were far more
severe than those handed out to the men. Up to the time of my little
visit to La Ferté I had innocently supposed that in referring to women
as 'the weaker sex' a man was strictly within his rights. La Ferté, if
it did nothing else for my intelligence, rid it of this over-powering
error. I recall, for example, a period of sixteen days and nights spent
(during my stay) by the woman Lena in the cabinot. It was either
toward the latter part of October or the early part of November that
this occurred, I will not be sure which. The dampness of the autumn was
as terrible, under normal conditions—that is to say in The Enormous
Room—as any climatic eccentricity which I have ever experienced. We
had a wood-burning stove in the middle of the room, which antiquated
apparatus was kept going all day, to the vast discomfort of eyes and
noses not to mention throats and lungs—the pungent smoke filling the
room with an atmosphere next to unbreathable, but tolerated for the
simple reason that it stood between ourselves and death. For even with
the stove going full blast the walls never ceased to sweat and even
trickle, so overpowering was the dampness. By night the chill was to
myself—fortunately bedded at least eighteen inches from the floor and
sleeping in my clothes; bed-roll, blankets, and all, under and over me
and around me—not merely perceptible but desolating. Once my bed
broke, and I spent the night perforce on the floor with only my paillasse under me; to awake finally in the whitish dawn perfectly
helpless with rheumatism. Yet with the exception of my bed and B.'s bed
and a wooden bunk which belonged to Bathhouse John, every paillasse lay directly on the floor; moreover the men who slept thus were
three-quarters of them miserably clad, nor had they anything beyond
their light-weight blankets —whereas I had a complete outfit
including a big fur coat, which I had taken with me (as previously
described) from the Section Sanitaire. The morning after my
night spent on the floor I pondered, having nothing to do and being
unable to move, upon the subject of my physical endurance—wondering
just how the men about me, many of them beyond middle age, some
extremely delicate, in all not more than five or six as rugged
constitutionally as myself, lived through the nights in The Enormous
Room. Also I recollected glancing through an open door into the women's
quarters, at the risk of being noticed by the planton in whose
charge I was at the time (who, fortunately, was stupid even for a planton,
else I should have been well punished for my curiosity)
and beholding paillasses identical in all respects with ours
reposing on the floor; and I thought, If it is marvellous that old men
and sick men can stand this and not die, it is certainly miraculous
that girls of eleven and fifteen, and the baby which I saw once being
caressed out in the women's cour with unspeakable gentleness by
a little putain whose name I do not know, and the dozen or so
oldish females whom I have often seen on promenade—can, stand this
and not die. These things I mention not to excite the reader's pity nor
yet his indignation; I mention them because I do not know of any other
way to indicate—it is no more than indicating—the significance of
the torture perpetrated under the Directeur's direction in the
case of the girl Lena. If incidentally it throws light on the
personality of the torturer I shall be gratified.
Lena's confinement in the cabinot—which dungeon I have already
attempted to describe but to whose filth and slime no words can begin
to do justice—was in this case solitary. Once a day, of an afternoon
and always at the time when all the men were upstairs after the second
promenade (which gave the writer of this history an exquisite chance to
see an atrocity at first-hand), Lena was taken out of the cabinot by three
plantons and permitted a half-hour promenade
just outside the door of the building, or in the same
locality—delimited by barbed-wire on one side and the washing-shed on
another—made famous by the scene of inebriety above described.
Punctually at the expiration of thirty minutes she was shoved back into
the cabinot by the plantons. Every day for sixteen
days I saw her; noted the indestructible bravado of her gait and
carriage, the unchanging timbre of her terrible laughter in response to
the salutation of an inhabitant of The Enormous Room (for there were at
least six men who spoke to her daily, and took their pain sec and their
punishment therefor with the pride of a
soldier who takes the médaille militaire in recompense for his
valour) ; noted the increasing pallor of her flesh; watched the skin
gradually assume a distinct greenish tint (a greenishness which I
cannot describe save that it suggested putrefaction) ; heard the
coughing to which she had been always subject grow thicker and deeper
till it doubled her up every few minutes, creasing her body as you
crease a piece of paper with your thumb-nail, preparatory to tearing it
in two—and I realized fully and irrevocably and for perhaps the first
time the meaning of civilization. And I realized that it was true—as
I had previously only suspected it to be true—that in finding us
unworthy of helping to carry forward the banner of progress, alias the
tricolour, the inimitable and excellent French Government was
conferring upon B. and myself-albeit with other intent—the ultimate
And the Machine-Fixer, whose opinion of this blonde
putain grew and increased and soared with every day of her martyrdom till the
Machine-Fixer's former classification of les femmes exploded and
disappeared entirely—the Machine-Fixer who would have fallen on his
little knees to Lena had she given him a chance, and kissed the hem of
her striped skirt in an ecstasy of adoration—told me that Lena on
being finally released walked upstairs herself, holding hard to the
banister without a look for anyone, 'having eyes as big as tea-cups.'
He added, with tears in his own eyes:
'M'sieu' Jean, a woman.'
I recall perfectly being in the kitchen one day, hiding from the
eagle-eye of the Black Holster and enjoying a talk on the economic
consequences of war, said talk being delivered by Afrique. As a matter
of fact, I was not in the cuisine proper, but in the little room
which I have mentioned previously. The door into the cuisine was
shut. The sweetly soft odour of newly cut wood was around me. And all
the time that Afrique was talking I heard clearly, through the shut
door and through the kitchen wall and through the locked door of the cabinot
situated directly across the ball from
the insane, gasping voice of a girl singing and yelling and screeching
and laughing. Finally I interrupted my speaker to ask what on earth was
the matter in the cabinot?—'C'est la femme allemande qui s'appelle
Lily,' Afrique briefly answered. A little later BANG went the cabinot door, and ROAR went the familiar coarse voice of the
It disturbs him, the noise, Afrique said. The
cabinot door slammed. There was silence. Heavily steps ascended. Then the song
began again, a little more insane than before; the laughter a little
wilder. . . .'You can't stop her,' Afrique said admiringly. 'A great
voice Mademoiselle has, eh? So, as I was saying, the national debt
But the experience, à propos les femmes,
which meant and will
always mean more to me than any other, the scene which is a little more
unbelievable than perhaps any scene that it has ever been my privilege
to witness, the incident which (possibly more than any other) revealed
to me those unspeakable foundations upon which are builded with
infinite care such at once ornate and comfortable structures as La
Gloire and Le Patriotisme—occurred in this wise.
myself among them, were leaving
la cour for The Enormous
Room under the watchful eye (as always) of a planton. As we
defiled through the little gate in the barbed-wire fence we heard,
apparently just inside the building whither we were proceeding on our
way to The Great Upstairs, a tremendous sound of mingled screams,
curses and crashings. The planton of the day was not only
stupid—he was a little deaf ; to his ears this hideous racket had
not, as nearly as one could see, penetrated. At all events he marched
us along toward the door with utmost plantonic satisfaction and
composure. I managed to insert myself in the fore of the procession,
being eager to witness the scene within; and reached the door almost
simultaneously with Fritz, Harree and two or three others. I forget
which of us opened it. I will never forget what I saw as I crossed the
The hall was filled with stifling smoke; the smoke which straw makes
when it is set on fire, a peculiarly nauseous, choking, whitish-blue
smoke. This smoke was so dense that only after some moments could I
make out, with bleeding eyes and wounded lungs, anything whatever. What
I saw was this: five or six plantons were engaged in carrying
out of the nearest cabinot two girls, who looked perfectly dead.
Their bodies were absolutely limp. Their hands dragged foolishly along
the floor as they were carried. Their upward white faces dangled
loosely upon their necks. Their crumpled figures sagged in the plantons' arms. I recognized Lily and Renée. Lena I made out at a
little distance tottering against the door of the cuisine opposite the cabinot,
her hay-coloured head drooping and swaying
slowly upon the open breast of her shirt-waist, her legs far apart and
propping with difficulty her hinging body, her hands spasmodically
searching for the knob of the door. The smoke proceeded from the open cabinot
in great ponderous murdering clouds. In one of these
clouds, erect and tense and beautiful as an angel—her wildly shouting
face framed in its huge night of dishevelled hair, her deep sexual
voice, hoarsely strident above the din and smoke, shouting fiercely
through the darkness-stood, triumphantly and colossally young, Celina.
Facing her, its clenched pinkish fists raised high above its savagely
bristling head in a big brutal gesture of impotence and rage and
anguish—the Fiend Himself paused, quivering, on the fourth stair from
the bottom of the flight leading to the women's quarters. Through the
smoke the great bright voice of Celina rose at him, hoarse and rich and
sudden and intensely luxurious, a quick throaty accurate slaying
CHIEZ, SI VOUS VOULEZ, CHIEZ,
and over and beneath and around the voice I saw frightened faces of
women hanging in the smoke, some screaming with their lips apart and
their eyes closed, some staring with wide eyes; and among the women's
faces I discovered the large placid interested expression of the Gestionnaire
and the nervous clicking eyes of the
And there was a shout-it was the Black Holster shouting at us as we
'Who the devil brought
in here? Get up with you
where you belong, you...'
—And he made a rush at us, and we dodged in the smoke and passed
slowly up the hall, looking behind us, speechless to a man with the
admiration of Terror, till we reached the further flight of stairs; and
mounted slowly with the din falling below us, ringing in our ears,
beating upon our brains—mounted slowly with quickened blood and pale
faces—to the peace of The Enormous Room.
I spoke with both
balayeurs that night. They told me,
independently, the same story: the four incorrigibles had been locked
in the cabinot ensemble. They made so much noise, particularly
Lily, that the plantons were afraid the Directeur would
be disturbed. Accordingly the plantons got together and stuffed
the contents of a paillasse in the cracks around the door, and
particularly in the crack under the door wherein cigarettes were
commonly inserted by friends of the entombed. This process made the cabinot
air-tight. But the
Plantons were not taking any
chances on disturbing Monsieur le Directeur. They carefully
lighted the paillasse at a number of points and stood back to
see the result of their efforts. So soon as the smoke found its
way inward the singing was supplanted by coughing; then the coughing
stopped. Then nothing was heard. Then Celina began crying out
within—'Open the door, Lily and Renée are dead'—and the plantons
were frightened. After some debate they decided to open the door—out
poured the smoke, and in it Celina, whose voice in a fraction of a
second roused everyone in the building. The Black Holster wrestled with
her and tried to knock her down by a blow on the mouth; but she
escaped, bleeding a little, to the foot of the stairs—simultaneously
with the advent of the Directeur, who for once had found someone
beyond the power of his weapon. Fear, someone in contact with whose
indescribable Youth the puny threats of death withered between his
lips, someone finally completely and unutterably Alive whom the Lie
upon his slavering tongue could not kill.
I do not need to say that, as soon as the girls who had fainted
could be brought to, they joined Lena in pain sec for many days
to come; and that Celina was overpowered by six plantons—at the
order of Monsieur le Directeur—and reincarcerated in the
cabinot adjoining that from which she had made her velocitous
exit—reincarcerated without food for twenty-four hours. 'Mais,
M'sieu' Jean,' the Machine-Fixer said trembling, 'Vous
savez elle est forte. She gave the six of them a fight, I tell
you. And three of them went to the doctor as a result of their efforts,
including le vieux (The Black Holster). But of course they
succeeded in beating her up, six men upon one woman. She was beaten
badly, I tell you, before she gave in. Msieu' Jean, ils sont
tous—les plantons et le Directeur Lui-Même et le Surveillant et le
Gestionnaire et tous—ils sonts des—' and he said very nicely
what they were, and lit his little black pipe with a crisp curving
upward gesture, and shook like a blade of grass.
With which specimen of purely mediæval torture I leave the subject
of 'Women, and embark upon the quieter if no less enlightening subject
Sunday, it will be recalled, was
Monsieur le Directeur's
third weapon. That is to say: lest the ordinarily tantalizing proximity
of les femmes should not inspire les hommes to deeds
which placed the doers automatically. in the clutches of himself, his
subordinates, and la punition, it was arranged that once a week
the tantalizing proximity aforesaid should be supplanted by a
positively maddening approach to coincidence. Or in other words, les
hommes and les femmes might for an hour or less enjoy the
same exceedingly small room; for purposes of course of devotion—it
being obvious to Monsieur le Directeur that the representatives
of both sexes at La Ferté Macé were inherently of a strongly devotional
nature. And lest the temptation to err in such moments be deprived,
through a certain aspect of compulsion, of its complete force, the
attendance of such strictly devotional services was made optional.
The uplifting services to which I refer took place in that very room
which (the night of my arrival) had yielded me my paillasse under the Surveillant's
direction. It may have been thirty feet
long and twenty wide. At one end was an altar at the top of several
wooden stairs, with a large candle on each side. To the right as you
entered a number of benches were placed to accommodate les femmes.
Les hommes upon entering took off their caps and stood over against
the left wall so as to leave between them and les femmes an
alley perhaps five feet wide. In this alley stood the Black Holster
with his képi firmly resting upon his head, his arms folded, his
eyes spying to left and right in order to intercept any signals
exchanged between the sheep and goats. Those who elected to enjoy
spiritual things left the cour and their morning promenade after
about an hour of promenading, while the materially minded remained to
finish the promenade; or if one declined the promenade entirely (as
frequently occurred owing to the fact that weather conditions on Sunday
were invariably more indescribable than usual) a planton mounted
to The Enormous Room and shouted 'La Messe!' several times;
whereat the devotees lined up and were carefully conducted to the scene
of spiritual operations.
The priest was changed every week. His assistant (whom I had the
indescribable pleasure of seeing only upon Sundays) was always the
same. It was his function to pick the priest up when he fell down after
tripping upon his robe, to hand him things before he wanted them, to
ring a huge bell, to interrupt the peculiarly divine portions of the
service with a squeaking of his shoes, to gaze about from time to time
upon the worshippers for purposes of intimidation, and finally—most
important of all—to blow out the two big candles at the very earliest
opportunity, in the interests (doubtless) of economy. As he was a
short, fattish, ancient, strangely soggy creature, and as his longish
black suit was somewhat too big for him, he executed a series of
profound efforts in extinguishing the candles. In fact he had to climb
part-way up the candles before he could get at the flame; at which
moment, he looked very much like a weakly and fat boy (for he was
obviously in his second or fourth childhood) climbing a flag-pole. At
moments of leisure he abased his fatty whitish jowl and contemplated
with watery eyes the floor in front of his highly polished boots,
having first placed his ugly chubby hands together behind his most
green murmurs in coldness. Surplice fiercely fearful, praying on
his bony both knees, crossing himself ... The Fake French Soldier,
alias Garibaldi, beside him, a little face filled with terror ... the
Bell cranks the sharp-nosed curé on his knees ... titter from
bench of whores—and that reminds me of a Sunday afternoon on our
backs spent with the wholeness of a hill in Chevancourt, discovering a
great apple pie, B. and Jean Stahl and Maurice le Menuisier and myself; and the sun falling roundly before us.
—And then one
Dimanche a new high old man with a sharp
violet face and green hair—'Vous êtes libres, mes enfants,
de faire l'immortalité—Songez, songez donc—L'Eternité est une
existence sans durée-Toujours le Paradis, toujours l'Enfer' (to the
silently roaring whores) 'Le ciel est fait pour vous'—and the
Belgian ten-foot farmer spat three times and wiped them with his foot,
his nose dripping; and the nigger shot a white oyster into a far-off
scarlet handkerchief-and the Man's strings came untied and he sidled
crab-like down the steps—the two candles wiggle a strenuous softness
In another chapter I will tell you about the nigger.
And another Sunday I saw three tiny old females stumble forward,
three very formerly and even once bonnets perched upon three wizened
skulls, and flop clumsily before the Man, and take the wafer hungrily
into their leathery faces.
VII. AN APPROACH TO THE DELECTABLE
'Sunday' (says Mr. Pound, with infinite penetration)
'is a dreadful day,
Monday is much pleasanter.
Then let us muse a little space
Upon fond Nature's morbid grace.'
IT IS a great and distinct pleasure to have penetrated and arrived
upon the outside of Le Dimanche. 'We may now—Nature's morbid
grace being a topic whereof the reader has already heard much and will
necessarily hear more—turn to the 'much pleasanter,' the in fact
'Monday,' aspect of La Ferté; by which I mean les nouveaux, whose arrivals and reactions constituted the actual or kinetic aspect
of our otherwise merely real Non-existence. So let us tighten our belts
(everyone used to tighten his belt at least twice a day at La Ferté,
but for another reason —to follow and keep track of his surely
shrinking anatomy), seize our staffs into our hands, and continue the
ascent begun with the first pages of the story.
One day I found myself expecting
La Soupe, Number 1 with
something like avidity. My appetite faded, however, upon perceiving a
vision en route to the empty place at my left. It slightly
resembled a tall youth not more than sixteen or seventeen years old,
having flaxen hair, a face—whose whiteness I have never seen
equalled, and an expression of intense starvation which might have been
well enough in a human being, but was somewhat unnecessarily uncanny in
a ghost. The ghost, floatingly and slenderly, made for the place beside
me, seated himself suddenly and gently like a morsel of white wind, and
regarded the wall before him. La Soupe arrived. He obtained a
plate (after some protest on the part of certain members of our table
to whom the advent of a new-comer meant only that everyone would get
less for lunch), and after gazing at his portion for a second in
apparent wonderment at its size caused it gently and suddenly to
disappear. I was no sluggard as a rule, but found myself outclassed by
minutes—which, said I to myself, is not to be worried over since 'tis
sheer vanity to compete with the supernatural. But (even as I lugged
the last spoonful of lukewarm greasy water to my lips) this ghost
turned to me for all the world as if I too were a ghost, and remarked
'Voulez-vous me prêter dix sous? Je vais acheter du tabac à la
One has no business crossing a spirit, I thought; and produced the
sum cheerfully—which sum disappeared, the ghost arose slenderly and
soundlessly, and I was left with emptiness beside me.
Later I discovered that this ghost was called Pete.
Pete was a Hollander, and therefore found firm and staunch friends
in Harree, John o' the Bathhouse and the other Hollanders. In three
days Pete discarded the immateriality which had constituted the
exquisite definiteness of his advent, and donned the garb of
flesh-and-blood. This change was due equally to La Soupe and the
canteen, and to the finding of friends. For Pete had been in solitary
confinement for three months, and had had nothing to eat but bread and
water during that time, having been told by the jailors (as he informed
us, without a trace of bitterness) that they would shorten his sentence
provided he did not partake of La Soupe during his
incarceration—that is to say, le gouvernement français had a
little joke at Pete's expense. Also he had known nobody during that
time but the five fingers which deposited said bread and water with
conscientious regularity on the ground beside him. Being a Hollander
neither of these things killed him —on the contrary, he merely turned
into a ghost, thereby fooling the excellent French Government within an
inch of its foolable life. He was a very excellent friend of ours —I
refer as usual to B. and myself—and from the day of his arrival until
the day of his departure to Précigné along with B. and three others I
never ceased to like and to admire him. He was naturally sensitive,
extremely the antithesis of coarse (which 'refined' somehow does not
imply), had not in the least suffered from a 'good,' as we say,
education, and possessed an at once frank and unobstreperous
personality. Very little that had happened to Pete's physique had
escaped Pete's mind. This mind of his quietly and firmly had expanded
in proportion as its owner's trousers had become too big around the
waist—altogether not so extraordinary as was the fact that, after
being physically transformed as I have never seen a human being
transformed by food and friends, Pete thought and acted with exactly
the same quietness and firmness as before. He was a rare spirit, and I
salute him wherever he is.
Mexique was a good friend of Pete's, as he was of ours. He had been
introduced to us by a man we called One-Eyed David, who was married and
had a wife downstairs, with which wife he was allowed to live all
day—being conducted to and from her society by a planton. He
spoke Spanish well and French passably; had black hair, bright Jewish
eyes, a dead-fish expression, and a both amiable and courteous
disposition. One-Eyed Dah-veed (as it was pronounced, of course) had
been in prison at Noyon during the German occupation, which he
described fully and without hyperbole—stating that no one could have
been more considerate or just than the commander of the invading
troops. Dah-veed had seen with his own eyes a French girl extend an
apple to one of the common soldiers as the German army entered the
outskirts of the city: 'Prenez, dit elle; vous êtes fatigué.-Madame,
répondit le soldat allemand en français, je vous remercie—et il
cherchait dans sa poche et trouvait dix sous. Non, non, dit la jeune
fille, je ne veux pas d'argent; je vous. donne de bonne
volonté—Pardon, madame, dit le soldat, il vous faut savoir qu'il est
défendu pour un soldat allemand de prendre quelque chose sans payer
.'—And before that, One-Eyed Dah-veed had talked at Noyon with a
barber whose brother was an aviator with the French Army: "Mon
frère, me dit le coiffeur, m'a raconté une belle histoire il y a
quelques jours. Il volait au-dessus des lignes, et s'étonnait, un jour,
de remarquer que les cannons français ne tiraient bas sur les boches
mais sur les français eux-mêmes. Précipitamment il atterissait, sautait
de l'appareil, allait de suite au bureau du général. Il donnait le
salut, et criait, bien excité: Mon général, vous tirez sur les
français! Le général le regardait sans intérêt, sans bouger, puis il
disait tout simplement: On a commencé, il faut finir? 'Which is why
perhaps, said One-Eyed Dah-veed, looking two ways at once with his
uncorrelated eyes, the Germans entered Noyon ... But to return to
One night we had a soirée, as Dah-veed called it, à propos a pot of
hot tea which Dah-veed's wife had given him to take upstairs, it being
damnably damp and cold (as usual) in The Enormous Room. Dah-veed,
cautiously and in a low voice, invited us to his paillasse to
enjoy this extraordinary pleasure; and we accepted, B. and I, with huge
joy; and sitting on Dah-veed's paillasse we found somebody who
turned out to be Mexique—to whom, by his right name, our host
introduced us with all the poise and courtesy vulgarly associated with
a French salon.
For Mexique I cherish and always will cherish unmitigated affection.
He was perhaps nineteen years old, very chubby, extremely good-natured;
and possessed of an unruffled disposition which extended to the most
violent and obvious discomforts a subtle and placid illumination. He
spoke beautiful Spanish, had been born in Mexico, and was really called
Philippe Burgos. He had been in New York. He criticized some one for
saying 'Yes' to us, one day, stating that no American said 'Yes' but
'Yuh'; which -whatever the reader may think—is to my mind a very
profound observation. In New York he had worked nights as a fireman in
some big building or other and slept days, and this method of seeing
America he had enjoyed extremely. Mexique had one day taken ship (being
curious to see the world) and worked as chauffeur—that is to say in the stoke-hole. He had landed in, I think, Havre; had missed
his ship; had inquired something of a gendarme in French (which he
spoke not at all, with the exception of a phrase or two like 'quelle
heure qu'il est?') ; had been kindly treated and told that he would
be taken to a ship de suite—had boarded a train in the
company of two or three kind gendarmes, ridden a prodigious distance,
got off the train finally with high hopes, walked a little distance,
come in sight of the grey perspiring wall of La Ferté, and—-'So, I
ask one of them: Where is the Ship? He point to here and tell me, There
is the ship. I say: This is a God Dam Funny Ship'—quoth Mexique,
Mexique played dominoes with us (B. having devised a set from
cardboard), strolled The Enormous Room with us, telling of his father
and brother in Mexico, of the people, of the customs; and—when we
were in the cour—wrote the entire conjugation of tengo in the
deep mud with a little stick, squatting and chuckling and explaining.
He and his brother had both participated in the revolution which made
Carranza president. His description of which affair was utterly
'Every-body run a-round with guns,' Mexique said. 'And by-and-by no
see to shoot everybody, so everybody go home.' We asked if he had shot
anybody himself. 'Sure. I shoot everybody I do'no,' Mexique answered,
laughing. 'I t'ink every-body no hit me,' he added, regarding his
stocky person with great and quiet amusement. When we asked him once
what he thought about the war, he replied, 'I t'ink lotta bullsh-t,'
which, upon copious reflection, I decided absolutely expressed my own
point of view.
Mexique was generous, incapable of either stupidity or despondency,
and mannered as a gentleman is supposed to be. Upon his arrival he
wrote almost immediately to the Mexican or is it Spanish consul—'He
know my fader in Mexico'—stating in perfect and unambiguous Spanish
the facts leading to his arrest; and when I said good-bye to La
Misère, Mexique was expecting a favourable reply at any moment, as
indeed he had been cheerfully expecting for some time. If he reads this
history I hope he will not be too angry with me for whatever injustice
it does to one of the altogether pleasantest companions I have ever
had. My notebooks, one in particular, are covered with conjugations
which bear witness to Mexique's ineffable good-nature. I also have a
somewhat superficial portrait of his back sitting on a bench by the poêle. I wish I had another of Mexique out in
le jardin with
a man who worked there, who was a Spaniard, and whom the Surveillant had considerately allowed Mexique to assist; with the perfectly correct
idea that it would be pleasant for Mexique to talk to some one who
could speak Spanish—if not as well as he, Mexique, could, at least
passably well. As it is, I must be content to see my very good friend
sitting with his hands in his pockets by the stove with Bill the
Hollander beside him. And I hope it was not many days after my
departure that Mexique went free. Somehow I feel that he went free ...
and if I am right, I will only say about Mexique's freedom what I have
heard him slowly and placidly say many times concerning not only the
troubles which were common property to us all but his own peculiar
troubles as well.
The Young (or Holland) Skipper—not to be confused with The Skipper
whom I have already tried to describe—was a real contribution to our
midst. On his own part he contributed his mate—a terribly tall,
rather round-shouldered individual, of whom I said to myself
immediately: 'By Jove, here's a tough guy and a murderer all in one.'
Of course I was wrong; I say 'of course,' since to judge an arrival by
the arrival's exterior was (as I discovered in practically every case)
equivalent to judging a motor by its horse-power instead of what it did
when confronted by a hill. As it turned out, the mate was a taciturn
and very gentle youth who had committed no greater crime than that of
being a member of The Young Skipper's crew. That this was far from a
crime was proved by The Young Skipper himself, than whom I have never
met a jollier, more open-hearted and otherwise both generous and
genuine man in my life. He wore a collarless shirt gaily striped, a
vest and trousers calculated to withstand the ravages of time, a jaunty
cap, a big signet ring on his fourth finger, and a pair of seaworthy
boots which were the envy and admiration of every one, including
myself. He used to sit on an extraordinarily small wooden stool by the
stove, thereby exaggerating his almost round five-feet exactly of bone
and muscle. The Hollanders, especially John, made a great deal of him.
He was ready without being rough, had a pair of frank, good-humoured
eyes, a tiny happy nose somewhat uppish and freckled, and large strong
hard hands which seemed always rather embarrassed to find themselves on
land. He told us confidentially that Pete had run away to sea; that
Pete came of a very good family in Holland, who were worried to death
about Pete's whereabouts; that Pete was too proud to let them know he
had been arrested; and that he, The Young Skipper, if and when he got
back to Holland, would make a point of going immediately to Pete's
parents and telling them where Pete was, which would make them move
earth and heaven for their son's liberty. Of a Sunday, The Young or
Holland Skipper got himself up to beat the cars and joined the
immaculate Holland Delegation at la messe —-being, from
the instant of his arrival, assoted upon a fair lady who invariably
attended all functions of a religious nature. I must add (for the
benefit of the highly moral readers of this chronicle) that this
admiration served merely to while away the moments of The Young
Skipper's captivity—and that The Young Skipper never seriously
deviated from an intense devotion to 'my girl' as he called her, whose
photograph he always carried over his heart. A large-faced and plump
person, with apparently a very honest heart of her own—I wish I could
say more for her ... but then, photographs are always untrustworthy. He
told us some very vivid incidents in his voyages, which (the war being
on) were accomplished with some danger and a great deal of excitement.
I remember how his eyes twinkled when he said his ship passed directly
under a huge Zeppelin: 'And the fellers waved to us, and we gave 'em a
cheer and waved too, and all the fellers in the Zeppelin keeked'—due
to which word in particular I conceived a great fondness for The Young
Skipper. He told about the multitudinous English deserters in Holland,
how 'The girls were crazy about 'em, and if a Hollander comes up and
asks 'em to go skating with him on the canal they won't, for the
English soldiers don't know how to skate'—and later when the haughty
misses had been 'left' by their flames, 'Up we'd come and give 'em the
laugh.' ... He spoke first-rate English, clear rousing Dutch, some I
should say, faulty but fluent German, and no French. 'This language is
too bloody much for me,' said The Young Skipper with perfect candour,
smiling. 'The johndarniz ask me a lotta questions and I say no
parlezvous so they take me and my mate'—with a gesture toward the
mild and monumental youth by the stove—'and puts us on trains and
everywhere and where the Gottverdummer bloody Hell are we all agoing I
don't know till we gets here'—at which he laughed heartily. 'Thanks,'
he said when I offered a Scarferlati Jaune, 'I'll get some
myself to-night at the canteen and pay you back'—for in common with
Pete he shared a great conscientiousness in respect to receiving
favours. 'They're made of bloody dust, these,' he said, smiling
pleasantly after the first inhalation. I asked him what did he carry in
the way of cargo? 'Coal,' he replied with great emphasis. And he told
me they got it clear from Norway, and that it was a good business
bringing it (for the French needed it and would pay
anything)—'Provided you can stand the excitement.' His utter and
absolute contempt for the john-darmz was, to B. and myself in
particular, considerably more than delightful. 'Them fellers with their
swords and little coats capelike' were not to be spoken of in the same
breath with a man. As B. says, one of the nicest things anyone ever did
in La Ferté (I almost said in prison) was done by The Young Skipper one
night: who came up to our beds where we were cooking cocoa, or rather
chocolate (for we sliced up a cake of imitation Menier purchased at the
canteen, added water, and heated the ensemble in a tin cup suspended by
a truly extraordinary series of wires (B. fecit) directly above a
common bougie), and said to us, with a sticking of his thumb
behind him—'There's a poor feller lying sick over there and I
wondered will you give me a bit o' hot chocolate for him; he wouldn't
ask for it himself.' Naturally we were peculiarly happy to give
it—happier when we saw The Young Skipper stride over to the bed of
The Silent Man, to whom he spoke very gently and persuadingly in (as I
guess) German—happiest, when we saw The Silent Man half-rise from his
paillasse and drink, with The Young Skipper standing over him smiling
from ear to ear. Anyone who could with utmost ease conquer the
irrevocable diffidence of The Silent Man is insusceptible of
portraiture. I hereby apologize to The Young Skipper, and wish him well
with his girl in Holland, where I hope with all my heart he is. And
maybe some day we'll all of us go skating on the canals; and maybe
we'll talk about what happens when the dikes break, and about the
houses and the flowers and the windmills.
Here let me introduce the
I have already taken more or less in vain. A little sharp,
hungry-looking person who, subsequent to being a member of a rural
police force (of which membership be seemed rather proud), had served
his patrie—otherwise known as La Belgique—in
the capacity of motor-cyclist. As he carried dispatches from one
end of the line to the other his disagreeably big eyes had absorbed
certain peculiarly inspiring details of civilized warfare. He had, at
one time, seen a bridge hastily constructed by les alliés over
the Yser River, the cadavers of the faithful and the enemy alike being
thrown in helter-skelter to make a much needed foundation for the
timbers. This little procedure had considerably outraged the Garde-champêtre's
sense of decency. The Yser, said he, flowed
perfectly red for a long time. "We were all together: Belgians, French,
English ... we Belgians did not see any good reason for continuing the
battle. But we continued. O indeed we continued. Do you know why?'
I said that I was afraid I didn't.
'Because in front of us we had
les obus allemands, en arrière les
mitrailleuses françaises, toujours les mitrailleuses françaises, mon
'Je ne comprends pas bien,' I said in confusion, recalling all the
high-falutin rigmarole which Americans believed (little martyred
Belgium protected by the allies from the inroads of the aggressor,
etc.) )—'why should the French put machine-guns behind you?'
lifted his big empty eyes nervously. The
vast hollows in which they lived darkened. His little rather hard face
trembled within itself. I thought for a second he was going to throw a
fit at my feet instead of doing which he replied pettishly, in a sunken
'To keep us going forward. At times a company would .drop its guns
and turn to run. Pupupupupupupupup . . .' his short unlovely arm
described gently the swinging of a mitrailleuse. . . 'finish.
The Belgian soldiers to left and right of them took the hint. If they
did not—pupupupupupupupupup.... O we went forward. Yes. Vive le
And he rose with a gesture which seemed to brush away these painful
trifles from his memory, crossed the end of the room with short rapid
steps, and began talking to his best friend Judas, who was at that
moment engaged in training his wobbly moustachios.... Toward the close
of my visit to La Ferté the Garde-champêtre was really happy for
a period of two days—during which time he moved in the society of a
rich, intelligent, mistakenly arrested and completely disagreeable
youth in bone spectacles, copious hair and spiral puttees, whom B. and
I named JoJo the Lion-Faced Boy, thereby partially contenting
ourselves. Had the charges against JoJo been stronger my tale would
have been longer—fortunately for tout le monde they had no
basis; and back went JoJo to his native Paris, leaving the Garde-champêtre
with Judas and attacks of only occasionally
The reader may suppose that it is about time another Delectable
Mountain appeared upon his horizon. Let him keep his eyes wide open,
for here one comes ...
Whenever our circle was about to be increased, a bell from somewhere
afar (as a matter of fact the gate which had admitted my weary self to
La Ferté upon a memorable night, as already has been faithfully
recounted) tanged audibly—whereat up jumped the more strenuous
inhabitants of The Enormous Room and made pellmell for the common
peep-hole, situated at the door end or nearer end of our habitat and
commanding a somewhat fragmentary view of the gate together with the
arrivals, male and female, whom the bell announced. In one particular
case the watchers appeared almost unduly excited, shouting
'four!—'big box'—'five gendarmes!' and other incoherencies with a
loudness which predicted great things. As nearly always, I had declined
to participate in the mêlée; and was still lying comfortably horizontal
on my bed (thanking God that it had been well and thoroughly mended by
a fellow prisoner whom we called The Frog and Le Coiffeur—a
tremendously keen-eyed man with a large drooping black moustache, whose
boon companion, chiefly on account of his shape and gait, we knew as
The Lobster) when the usual noises attendant upon the unlocking of la porte began with exceptional violence. I sat up. The door shot
open, there was a moment's pause, a series of grunting remarks uttered
by two rather terrible voices; then in came four nouveaux of a
decidedly interesting appearance. They entered in two ranks of two
each. The front rank was made up of an immensely broad-shouldered
hipless and consequently triangular man in blue trousers belted with a
piece of ordinary rope, plus a thick-set ruffianly personage the most
prominent part of whose accoutrements were a pair of hideous whiskers.
I leaped to my feet and made for the door, thrilled in spite of myself.
By the, in this case, shifty blue eyes, the pallid hair, the well-knit
form of the rope's owner I knew instantly a Hollander. By the coarse
brutal features half-hidden in the piratical whiskers, as well as by
the heavy mean wandering eyes, I recognized with equal speed a Belgian.
Upon its shoulders the front rank bore a large box, blackish,
well-made, obviously very weighty, which box it set down with a grunt
of relief hard by the cabinet. The rear rank marched behind in a
somewhat asymmetrical manner: a young stupid-looking clear-complexioned
fellow (obviously a farmer, and having expensive black puttees and a
handsome cap with a shiny black leather visor) slightly preceded a tall
gliding thinnish unjudgeable personage who peeped at every one quietly
and solemnly from beneath the visor of a somewhat large slovenly cloth
cap, showing portions of a lean, long incognizable face upon which sat
or rather drooped a pair of moustachios identical in character with
those which are sometimes pictorially attributed to a Chinese
dignitary—in other words, the moustachios were exquisitely narrow,
homogeneously downward, and made of something like black corn-silk.
Behind les nouveaux staggered four paillasses motivated
mysteriously by two pair of small legs belonging (as it proved) to
Garibaldi and the little Machine-Fixer; who, coincident with the
tumbling of the paillasses to the floor, perspiringly emerged to
The first thing the shifty-eyed triangular Hollander did was to
exclaim Gottverdummer. The first thing the whiskery Belgian did was to
grab his paillasse and stand guard over it. The first thing the
youth in the leggings did was to stare helplessly about him, murmuring
something whimperingly in Polish. The first thing the fourth nouveau
did was pay no attention to anybody; lighting a cigarette in an
unhurried manner as he did so, and puffing silently and slowly as if in
all the universe nothing whatever save the taste of tobacco existed.
A bevy of Hollanders were by this time about the triangle, asking
him all at once, Was he from so and so? What was in his box? How long
had he been in coming? etc. Half a dozen stooped over the box itself,
and at least three pair of hands were on the point of trying the lock
—when suddenly with incredible agility the unperturbed smoker shot a
yard forward landing quietly beside them, and exclaimed rapidly and
briefly through his nose
He said it almost petulantly, or as a child says 'Tag! You're it.'
The onlookers recoiled, completely surprised. Whereat the frightened
youth in black puttees sidled over and explained with a pathetically at
once ingratiating and patronizing accent:
'Il n'est pas méchant. C'est un bonhomme. C'est mon ami. Il veut
dire que c'est à lui, la caisse. Il parle pas français?
'It's the Gottverdummer Polak's box,' said the Triangular Man,
exploding in Dutch—'They're a pair of Polakers; and this man' (with a
twist of his pale blue eyes in the direction of the Bewhiskered One)
'and I had to carry it all the Gottverdummer way to this Gottverdummer
All this time the incognizable
nouveau was smoking slowly and
calmly, and looking at nothing at all with his black button-like eyes.
Upon his face no faintest suggestion of expression could be
discovered by the hungry minds which focused unanimously upon its
almost stern contours. The deep furrows in the cardboard-like cheeks
(furrows which resembled slightly the gills of some extraordinary fish,
some unbreathing fish) moved not an atom. The moustache drooped in
something like mechanical tranquillity. The lips closed occasionally
with a gesture at once abstracted and sensitive upon the lightly and
carefully held cigarette; whose curling smoke accentuated the poise of
the head, at once alert and uninterested.
Monsieur Auguste broke in, speaking as I thought Russian—and in an
instant he and the youth in puttees and the Unknowable's cigarette and
the box and the Unknowable had disappeared through the crowd in the
direction of Monsieur Auguste's paillasse, which was also the
direction of the paillasse belonging to the Cordonnier as
he was sometimes called—a diminutive man with immense moustachios of
his own who promenaded with Monsieur Auguste, speaking sometimes French
and as a general rule Russian or Polish.
Which was my first glimpse, and is the reader's, of the Zulu; he
being one of the Delectable Mountains. For which reason I shall have
more to say of him later, when I ascend the Delectable Mountains in a
separate chapter or chapters; till when the reader must be content with
the above however unsatisfactory description....
One of the most utterly repulsive personages whom I have met in my
life—perhaps (and on second thought I think certainly) the most
utterly repulsive—was shortly after this presented to our midst by
the considerate French Government. I refer to The Fighting Sheeney. Wh
ether or no he arrived after the Spanish Whore-master I cannot say. I
remember that Bill The Hollander—which was the name of the triangular
rope-belted man with shifty blue eyes (co-arrivé with the
whiskery Belgian; which Belgian, by the way, from his not to be
exaggerated brutal look, B. and myself called The Baby-snatcher)—upon
his arrival told great tales of a Spanish millionaire with whom he had
been in prison just previous to his discovery of La Ferté. 'He'll be
here too in a couple o' days,' added Bill The Hollander, who had been
fourteen years in These United States, spoke the language to a T,
talked about 'The America Lakes' and was otherwise amazingly well
acquainted with The Land of the Free. And sure enough in less than a
week one of the fattest men whom I have ever laid eyes on,
over-dressed, much beringed, and otherwise wealthy-looking,
arrived—and was immediately played up to by Judas (who could smell
cash almost as far as le gouvernement français could smell
sedition) and, to my somewhat surprise, by the utterly respectable
Count Bragard. But most emphatically NOT by Mexique, who spent a
half-hour talking to the nouveau in his own tongue, then drifted
placidly over to our beds and informed us:
'You see dat feller over dere, dat fat feller? I speak Spanish to
him. He no good. Tell me he make fifty-tousand francs last year runnin'
whore-house in' (I think it was) 'Brest. Son of bitch!'
Dat fat feller lived in a perfectly huge bed which he, contrived to
have brought up for him immediately upon his arrival. The bed arrived
in a knock-down state and with it a mechanician from la ville who set about putting it together, meanwhile indulging in many glances
expressive not merely of interest but of amazement and even fear. I
suppose the bed had to be of special size in order to accommodate the
circular millionaire, and being an extraordinary bed required the
services of a skilled artisan—at all events, dat fat feller's couch
put The Skipper's altogether in the shade. As I watched the process of
construction it occurred to me that after all here was the last word in
luxury—to call forth from the metropolis not only a special divan but
with it a special slave, the Slave of the Bed.... Dat fat feller had
one of the prisoners perform his corvée for him. Dat fat feller
bought enough at the canteen twice every day to stock a transatlantic
liner for seven voyages, and never ate with the prisoners. I will
mention him again à propos the Mecca of respectability, the Great White
Throne of purity, Three rings Three alias Count Bragard, to whom I have
long since introduced my reader.
So we come, willy-nilly, to The Fighting Sheeney.
The Fighting Sheeney arrived carrying the expensive suit-case of a
livid, strangely unpleasant-looking Roumanian gent, who wore a knit
sweater of a strangely ugly red hue, impeccable clothes, and an
immaculate velour hat which must have been worth easily fifty francs.
We called this gent Rockyfeller. His personality might be faintly
indicated by the adjective Disagreeable. The porter was a creature whom
Ugly does not even slightly describe. There are some specimens of
humanity in whose presence one instantly and instinctively feels a
profound revulsion, a revulsion which—perhaps because it is
profound—cannot be analysed. The Fighting Sheeney was one of these
specimens. His face (or to use the good American idiom, his mug) was
exceedingly coarse-featured and had an indefatigable expression of
sheer brutality—yet the impression which it gave could not be traced
to any particular plane or line. I can and will say, however, that this
face was most hideous—perhaps that is the word—when it grinned.
When The Fighting Sheeney grinned you felt that he desired to eat you,
and was prevented from eating you only by a superior desire to eat
everybody at once. He and Rockyfeller came to us from I think it was
the Santé; both accompanied B. to Précigné. During the weeks
which The Fighting Sheeney spent at La Ferté Macé, the non-existence of
the inhabitants of The Enormous Room was rendered something more than
miserable. It was rendered well-nigh unbearable.
The night Rockyfeller and his slave arrived was a night to be
remembered by every one. It was one of the wildest and strangest and
most perfectly interesting nights I, for one, ever spent. Rockyfeller
had been corralled by Judas, and was enjoying a special bed to our
right at the upper end of The Enormous Room. At the canteen he had
purchased a large number of candles in addition to a great assortment
of dainties which he and Judas were busily enjoying—when the planton
came up, counted us thrice, divided by three, gave the
order 'Lumières éteintes,'
and descended locking the door behind
him. Every one composed himself for miserable sleep. Every one except
Judas, who went on talking to Rockyfeller, and Rockyfeller, who
proceeded to light one of his candles and begin a pleasant and
conversational evening. The Fighting Sheeney lay stark-naked on a paillasse
between me and his lord. The Fighting Sheeney told every
one that to sleep stark-naked was to avoid bugs (whereof everybody
including myself had a goodly portion). The Fighting Sheeney was,
however, quieted by the planton's order; whereas Rockyfeller
continued to talk and munch to his heart's content. This began to get
on everybody's nerves. Protests in a number of languages arose from all
parts of The Enormous Room. Rockyfeller gave a contemptuous look around
him and proceeded with his conversation. A curse emanated from the
darkness. Up sprang The Fighting Sheeney, stark-naked; strode over to
the bed of the curser, and demanded ferociously:
The curser was apparently fast asleep, and even snoring. The
Fighting Sheeney turned away disappointed, and had just reached his paillasse
when he was greeted by a number of uproariously
discourteous remarks uttered in all sorts of tongues. Over he rushed,
threatened, received no response, and turned back to his place. Once
more ten or twelve voices insulted him from the darkness. Once more The
Fighting Sheeney made for them, only to find sleeping innocents. Again
he tried to go to bed. Again the shouts arose, this time with redoubled
violence and in greatly increased number. The Fighting Sheeney was at
his wit's end. He strode about challenging everyone to fight, receiving
not the slightest recognition, cursing, reviling, threatening,
bullying. The darkness always waited for him to resume his paillasse, then burst out in all sorts of maledictions upon his
head and the sacred head of his lord and master. The latter was told to
put out his candle, go to sleep, and give the rest a chance to enjoy
what pleasure they might in forgetfulness of their woes. Whereupon he
appealed to The Sheeney to stop this. The Sheeney (almost weeping) said
he had done his best, that everyone was a pig, that nobody would fight,
and that it was disgusting. Roars of applause. Protests from the less
strenuous members of our circle against the noise in general: Let him
have his foutue candle, Shut up, Go to sleep yourself, etc.
Rockyfeller kept on talking (albeit visibly annoyed by the ill-breeding
of his fellow-captives) to the smooth and oily Judas. The noise or
rather noises increased. I was for some reason angry at Rockyfeller—I
think I had a curious notion that if I couldn't have a light after 'lumières éteintes,'
and if my very good friends were none
of them allowed to have one, then by God neither should Rockyfeller. At
any rate I passed a few remarks calculated to wither the by this time a
little nervous Übermensch; got up, put on some enormous sabots (which I
had purchased from a horrid little boy whom the French Government had
arrested with his parent, for some cause unknown—which horrid little
boy told me that he had 'found' the sabots 'in a train' on the way to
La Ferté) shook myself into my fur coat, and banged as noisemakingly as
I knew how over to One-Eyed Dahveed's paillasse, where Mexique
joined us. 'It is useless to sleep,' said One-Eyed Dah-veed in French
and Spanish. 'True,' I agreed, 'therefore let's make all the noise we
Steadily the racket bulged in the darkness. Human cries, quips and
profanity had now given place to wholly inspired imitations of various
not to say sundry animals. Afrique exclaimed—with great pleasure I
recognized his voice through the impenetrable gloom—
—perhaps, said 1, he means a machine gun; it sounds like either
that or a monkey. The Wanderer crowed beautifully. Monsieur Auguste's
bosom friend, le Cordonnier, uttered an astonishing
which provoked a tornado of laughter and some applause. Mooings,
chirpings, cacklings—there was a superb hen—neighings, he-hawings,
roarings, bleatings, growlings, quackings, peepings, screamings,
bellowings, and—something else, of course—set The Enormous Room
suddenly and entirely alive. Never have I imagined such a menagerie as
had magically instated itself within the erstwhile soggy and dismal
four walls of our chambre. Even such staid characters as Count
Bragard set up a little bawling. Monsieur Pet-airs uttered a tiny aged
crowing, to my immense astonishment and delight. The dying, the sick,
the ancient, the mutilated, made their contributions to the common
pandemonium. And then, from the lower left darkness, sprouted one of
the very finest noises which ever fell on human ears—the noise of a
little dog with floppy ears who was tearing after something on very
short legs and carrying his very fuzzy tail straight up in the air as
he tore; a little dog who was busier than he was wise, louder than he
was big; a red-tongued, foolish, breathless, intent little dog with
black eyes and a great smile and woolly paws-which noise, conceived and
executed by The Lobster, sent The Enormous Room into an absolute and
The Fighting Sheeney was at a stand-still. He knew not how to turn.
At last he decided to join with the insurgents, and wailed brutally and
dismally. That was the last straw. Rockyfeller, who could no longer
(even by shouting to Judas) make himself heard, gave up conversation
and gazed angrily about him; angrily yet fearfully, as if he expected
some of these numerous bears, lions, tigers and baboons to leap upon
him from the darkness. His livid, super-disagreeable face trembled with
the flickering cadence of the bougie. His lean lips clenched
with mortification and wrath. 'Vous êtes chef de chambre,' he said fiercely to Judas; 'why don't you make the men stop this?
C'est emmerdant.'—'Ah,' replied Judas smoothly and
insinuatingly, 'they are only men, and boors at that; you can't expect
them to have any manners.' A tremendous group of Something Elses
greeted this remark together with cries, insults, groans and linguistic
trumpetings. I got up and walked the length of the room to the cabinet (situated as always by this time of night in a pool of
urine which was in certain places six inches deep, from which pool my
sabots somewhat protected me) and returned, making as loud a clattering
as I was able. Suddenly the voice of Monsieur Auguste leaped through
the din in an
'Alors! c'est as-sez.'
The next thing we knew he had reached the window just below the
cabinet (the only window, by the way, not nailed up with good long
wire nails for the sake of warmth) and was shouting in a wild high
gentle angry voice to the sentinel below
'Plan-ton! C'est im-possi-ble de dor-mirl'
A great cry 'OUI! JE VIENS!' floated up very single noise
dropped—Rockyfeller shot out his hand for the candle, seized it in
terror, blew it out as if blowing it out were the last thing he would
do in this life—and The Enormous Room hung silent; enormously dark,
enormously expectant ...
BANG! Open flew the door.
qui m'appelle? Qu'est-ce
qu'on fout ici.' And The Black Holster, revolver in hand, flashed
his torch into the inky stillness of the chambre. Behind him
stood two plantons white with fear; their trembling hands
clutching revolvers, the barrels of which shook ludicrously.
'C'est moi, plan-ton!'
Monsieur Auguste explained that no one could sleep because of the
noise, and that the noise was because 'ce -monsieur la' would
not extinguish his bougie when everyone wanted to sleep. The
Black Holster turned to the room at large and roared: 'You children of Merde,
don't let this happen again or I'll fix you, everyone of
you-'—Then he asked if anyone wanted to dispute this assertion (he
brandishing his revolver the while) and was answered by peaceful
snorings. Then he said by X, Y and Z he'd fix the noisemakers in the
morning and fix them good—and looked for approbation to his trembling
assistants. Then he swore twenty or thirty times for luck, turned, and
thundered out on the heels of his fleeing confrères who almost tripped
over each other in their haste to escape from The Enormous Room. Never
have I seen a greater exhibition of bravery than was afforded by The
Black Holster, revolver in hand, holding at bay the snoring and
weaponless inhabitants of The Enormous Room. Vive les plantons. He should have been a gendarme.
Of course Rockyfeller, having copiously tipped the officials of La
Ferté upon his arrival, received no slightest censure nor any hint of
punishment for his deliberate breaking of an established rule—a rule
for the breaking of which any one of the common scum (e.g. thank God,
myself) would have got cabinot de suite. No indeed. Several of les hommes,
pain sec—not because they had
been caught in an act of vociferous protestation by The Black Holster,
which they had not—but just on principle, as a warning to the rest of
us and to teach us a wholesome respect for (one must assume) law and
order. One and all, they heartily agreed that it was worth it. Everyone
knew, of course, that the Spy had peached. For, by Jove, even in The
Enormous Room there was a man who earned certain privileges and
acquired a complete immunity from punishments by squealing on his
fellow sufferers at each and every opportunity. A really ugly person,
with a hard knuckling face and treacherous hands, whose daughter
lived downstairs in a separate room apart from les putains (against which 'dirty,' filthy,' 'whores' he could not say
enough—'Hi'd rather die than 'ave my daughter with them stinkin'
'ores,' remarked once to me this strictly moral man, in Cockney
English) and whose daughter (aged thirteen) was generally supposed to
serve the Directeur in a pleasurable capacity. One did
not need to be warned against the Spy (as both B. and I were warned,
upon our arrival) —a single look at that phiz was enough for anyone
partially either intelligent or sensitive. This phiz or mug, had, then,
squealed. 'Which everyone took as a matter of course and admitted among
themselves that hanging was too good for him.
But the vast and unutterable success achieved by the
was this—Rockyfeller, shortly after, left our ill-bred society for
the very same 'hospital' whose comforts and seclusion
Monsieur le Surveillant
had so dexterously recommended to B. and
myself. Rockyfeller kept The Fighting Sheeney in his pay, in order to
defend him when he went on promenade; otherwise our connection with him
was definitely severed; his new companions being Muskowitz the
Cock-eyed Millionaire, and The Belgian Song Writer-who told everyone to
whom he spoke that he was a government official (—'de la blague,' cried the little Machine-Fixer,
'C'est un menteur!'
he knew of this person in Belgium and that this person was a man who
wrote popular ditties). Would to Heaven we had got rid of the slave as
well as the master—but unfortunately The Fighting Sheeney couldn't
afford to follow his lord's example. So he went on making a nuisance of
himself, trying hard to curry favour with B. and me, getting into
fights, and bullying everyone generally.
Also this lion-hearted personage spent one whole night shrieking and
moaning on his paillasse after an injection by Monsieur
Richard—for syphilis. Two or three men were, in the course of a few
days, discovered to have had syphilis for some time. They had it in
their mouths. I don't remember them particularly, except that at least
one was a Belgian. Of course they and The Fighting Sheeney had been
using the common dipper and drinking-water pail.
Le gouvernement français
couldn't be expected to look out for a little thing like venereal
disease among prisoners: didn't it have enough to do curing those
soldiers who spent their time on permission trying their best to
infect themselves with both gonorrhœa and syphilis? Let not the reader
suppose I am day-dreaming: let him rather recall that I had had the
honour of being a member of Section Sanitaire Vingt-et-Un, which
helped evacuate the venereal hospital at Ham, with whose inhabitants
(in odd moments) I talked and walked and learned several things about la guerre.
Let the reader—if he does not realize it
already—realize that This Great War For Humanity, etc., did not agree
with some people's ideas, and that some people's ideas made them prefer
to the glories of the front line the torments (I have heard my friends
at Ham screaming a score of times) attendant upon venereal diseases. Or
as one of my aforesaid friends told me after discovering that I was, in
contrast to les américains, not bent upon making France discover
America but rather upon discovering France and les français myself—
'Mon vieux, c'est tout-à-fait simple. je m'en vais en permission. je
demande à aller à Paris, parce qu'il y a des gonzesses là-bas qui sont
toutes malades! J'attrappe le syphilis, et, quand il est possible, la
gonnorrhée aussi. Je reviens. je pars pour la première ligne. Je suis
malade. L'hôpital. Le médecin me dit: Il ne faut ni fumer ni boire,
comme ça vous. serez bientôt guéri. "Merci, monsieur le médecin!" Je
fume toujours et je bois toujours et je ne suis pas guéri. le reste
cinq, six, sept semaines. Peut-être des mois. Enfin, je suis guéri. Je
rejoins mon régiment. Et-maintenant, c'est mon tour de'aller en
permission. Je m'en vais. Encore la même chose. C'est joli ça, tu sais."
But about the syphilitics at La Ferté: they were, somewhat tardily
to be sure, segregated in a very small and dirty room—for a matter
of, perhaps, two weeks. And the Surveillant actually saw to it
that during this period they ate la soupe out of individual
I scarcely know whether The Fighting Sheeney made more of a nuisance
of himself during his decumbiture or during the period which followed
it—which period houses an astonishing number of fights, rows,
bullyings, etc. He must have had a light case for he was guéri
in no time, and on everyone's back as usual. Well, I will leave him
for the nonce; in fact I will leave him until I come to The Young Pole,
who wore black puttees and spoke of The Zulu as 'mon ami'—The
Young Pole whose troubles I will recount in connection with the second
Delectable Mountain itself. I will leave The Sheeney with the
observation that he was almost as vain as he was vicious; for with what
ostentation, one day when we were in the kitchen, did he show me a
post-card received that afternoon from Paris, whereon I read 'Comme
vous êtes beau' and promises to send more money as fast as she
earned it and, hoping that he had enjoyed her last present, the
signature (in a big, adoring hand)
'Ta môme. Alice.'
and when I had read it—sticking his mug up into my face, The
Fighting Sheeney said with emphasis:
'No travailler moi. Femme travaille, fait la noce, tout le temps.
Toujours avec officiers anglais. Gagne beaucoup, cent francs, deux cent
francs, trois cent francs, toutes les nuits. Anglais riches. Femme me
donne tout. Moi no travailler. Bon, eh?'
Grateful for this little piece of information, and with his leer an
inch from my chin, I answered slowly and calmly that it certainly was.
I might add that he spoke Spanish by preference (according to Mexique
very bad Spanish); for The Fighting Sheeney had made his home for a
number of years in Rio, his opinion whereof may be loosely translated
by the expressive phrase, 'it's a swell town.'
A charming fellow, The Fighting Sheeney.
Now, I must tell you what happened to the poor Spanish Whoremaster.
I have already noted the fact that Count Bragard conceived an immediate
fondness for this rolypoly individual, whose belly—as he lay upon his
back of a morning in bed—rose up with the sheets, blankets and quilts
as much as two feet above the level of his small stupid head studded
with chins. I have said that this admiration on the part of the
admirable Count and R.A. for a personage of the Spanish Whoremaster's
profession somewhat interested me. The fact is, a change had recently
come in our own relations with Vanderbilt's friend. His cordiality
toward B. and myself had considerably withered. From the time of our
arrivals the good nobleman had showered us with favours. and advice. To
me, I may say, he was even extraordinarily kind. We talked painting,
for example: Count Bragard folded a piece of paper, tore it in the
centre of the folded edge, unfolded it carefully, exhibiting a good
round hole, and remarking -'Do you know this trick? It's an English
trick, Mr. Cummings'—held the paper before him and gazed profoundly
through the circular aperture at an exceptionally disappointing section
of the altogether gloomy landscape, visible thanks to one of the
ecclesiastical windows of The Enormous Room. 'Just look at that, Mr.
Cummings,' he said with quiet dignity. I looked. I tried my best to
find so—nothing to the left—'No, no, straight through,' Count
Bragard corrected me. 'There's a lovely bit of landscape,' he said
sadly. 'If I only had my paints here. I thought, you know, of asking my
housekeeper to send them on from Paris—but how can you paint in a
bloody place like this with all these bloody pigs around you? It's
ridiculous to think of it. And it's tragic, too,' he added grimly, with
something like tears in his grey tired eyes.
Or we were promenading The Enormous Room after supper—the evening
promenade in the cour having been officially eliminated owing to
the darkness and the cold of the autumn twilight—and through the
windows the dull bloating colours of sunset pouring faintly; and the
Count stops dead in his tracks and regards the sunset without speaking
for a number of seconds. Then—'It's glorious, isn't it?' he asks
quietly. I say 'Glorious indeed.' He resumes his walk with a sigh, and
I accompany him. 'Ce n'est pas difficile à peindre, un coucher du
soleil, it's not hard,' he remarks gently. 'No?' I say with
deference. 'Not hard a bit,' the Count says, beginning to use his
hands. 'You only need three colours, you know. Very simple.' 'Which
colours are they?' I inquire ignorantly. 'Why, you know of course,' he
says surprised. 'Burnt sienna, cadmium yellow, and er—there! I can't
think of it. I know it as well as I know my own face. So do you. Well,
that's stupid of me.'
Or, his worn eyes dwelling benignantly upon my dufflebag, he warns
me (in a low voice) of Prussian Blue.
'Did you notice the portrait hanging in the
bureau of the
Count Bragard inquired one day. 'That's a pretty
piece of work, Mr. Cummings. Notice it when you get a chance. The green
moustache, particularly fine. School of Cézanne.'—'Really?' I said in
surprise.—-'Yes, indeed,' Count Bragard said, extracting his tired
looking hands from his tired looking trousers with a cultured gesture.
'Fine young fellow painted that, I knew him. Disciple of the master.
Very creditable piece of work.'—'Did you ever see Cézanne?' I
ventured.—'Bless you, yes, scores of times,' he answered almost
pityingly.—'What did he look like?' I asked, with great
curiosity.—'Look like? His appearance, you mean?' Count Bragard
seemed at a loss. 'Why, he was not extraordinary looking. I don't know
how you could describe him. Very difficult in English. But you know a
phrase we have in French, "l'air pesant"; I don't think there's
anything in English for it; il avait l'air pesant, Cézanne, if
you know what I mean.'
'I should work, I should not waste my time,' the Count would say
almost weepingly. 'But it's no use, my things aren't here. And I'm
getting old too; couldn't concentrate in this stinking hole of a place,
I did some hasty drawings of Monsieur Pet-airs washing and rubbing
his bald head with a great towel in the dawn. The R.A. caught me in the
act and came over shortly after, saying, 'Let me see them.' In some
perturbation (the subject being a particular friend of his) I showed
one drawing. 'Very good, in fact, excellent'; the R.A. smiled
whimsically. 'You have a real talent for caricature, Mr. Cummings, and
you should exercise it. You really got Peters. Poor Peters, he's a fine
fellow, you know; but this business of living in the muck and filth, c'est malheureux.
Besides, Peters is an old man. It's a dirty
bloody shame, that's what it is. A bloody shame that all of us here
should be forced to live like pigs with this scum!'
'I tell you what, Mr. Cummings,' he said with something like
fierceness, his weary eyes flashing, 'I'm getting out of here shortly,
and when I do get out (I'm just waiting for my papers to be sent on by
the English consul) I'll not forget my friends. We've lived together
and suffered together and I'm not a man to forget it. This hideous
mistake is nearly cleared up, and when I go free I'll do anything for
you and Mr. B. Anything I can do for you I'd be only too glad to do it.
If you want me to buy you paints when I'm in Paris, nothing would give
me more pleasure. I know French as well as I know my own language' (he
most certainly did) 'and whereas you might be cheated, I'll get you
everything you need a bon, marché. Because you see they know me
there, and I know just where to go. Just give me the money for what you
need and I'll get you the best there is in Paris for it. You needn't
worry'—I was protesting that it would be too much trouble—'my dear
fellow, it's no trouble to do a favour for a friend.'
And to B. and myself ensemble he declared, with tears in his eyes,
'I have some marmalade at my house in Paris; real marmalade, not the
sort of stuff you buy these days. 'We know how to make it. You can't
get an idea how delicious it is. In big crocks'—the Count said
simply—well, that's for you boys." We protested that be was too kind.
'Nothing of the sort,' he said, with a delicate smile. 'I have a son in
the English army,' and his face clouded with worry, 'and we send him
some now and then, and he's crazy about it. I know what it means to
him. And you shall share in it too. I'll send you six crocks.' Then,
suddenly looking at us with a pleasant expression, 'By Jove,' the Count
said, 'do you like whisky? Real Bourbon whisky? I see by your look that
you know what it is. But you never tasted anything like this. Do you
know London?' I said no, as I had said once before. "Well, that's a
pity,' he said, 'for if you did you'd know this bar. I know the
bar-keeper well, known him for thirty years. There's a picture of mine
hanging in his place. Look at it when you're in London, drop in to
——— Street, you'll find the place, anyone will tell you where it is.
This fellow would do anything for me. And now I'll tell you what I'll
do: you fellows give me whatever you want to spend and I'll get you the
best whisky you ever tasted. It's his own private stock, you
understand. I'll send it on to you—God knows you need it in this
place. I wouldn't do this for anyone else, you understand,' and he
smiled kindly, 'but we've been prisoners together, and we understand
each other, and that's enough for gentlemen. I won't forget you.' He
drew himself up. 'I shall write,' he said slowly and distinctly, 'to
Vanderbilt about you. I shall tell him it's a dirty bloody shame that
two young Americans, gentlemen born, should be in this foul place. He's
a man who's quick to act. He'll not tolerate a thing like this—an
outrage, a bloody outrage, upon two of his own countrymen. We shall see
what happens then.'
It was during this period that Count Bragard lent us for our
personal use his greatest treasure, a water-glass. 'I don't need it,'
he said simply and pathetically.
Now, as I have said, a change in our relations came.
It came at the close, of one soggy, damp raining afternoon. For this
entire hopeless grey afternoon Count Bragard and B. promenaded The
Enormous Room. Bragard wanted the money—for the whisky and the
paints. The marmalade and the letter to Vanderbilt were, of course, gratis. Bragard was leaving us. Now was the time to give him money
for what we wanted him to buy in Paris and London. I spent my time
rushing about, falling over things, upsetting people, making curious
and secret signs to B.—-which signs, being interpreted, meant: Be
careful! —But there was no need of telling B. this particular thing.
When the planton announced la soupe a fiercely
weary face strode by me en route to his paillasse and his
spoon. I knew that B. had been careful. A minute later he joined me,
and told me as much....
On the way downstairs we ran into the
stepped from the ranks and poured upon the Surveillant a torrent
of French, of which the substance was: You told them not to give me
anything. The Surveillant smiled and bowed and wound and unwound
his hands behind his back and denied anything of the sort.
It seems that B. had heard that the kindly nobleman wasn't going to
Paris at all.
Moreover, Monsieur Pet-airs had said to B. something about Count
Bragard being a suspicious personage—Monsieur Pet-airs, the R.A.'s
Moreover, as I have said, Count Bragard had been playing up to the
poor Spanish Whoremaster to beat the band. Every day had he sat on a
little stool beside the roly-poly millionaire, and written from
dictation letter after letter in French—with which language the
roly-poly was sadly unfamiliar.... And when next day Count Bragard took
back his treasure of treasures, his personal water-glass, remarking
briefly that he needed it once again, I was not surprised. And when, a
week or so later, he left—I was not surprised to have Mexique come up
to us and placidly remark:
'I give dat feller five francs. Tell me he send me overcoat, very
good overcoat. But say: Please no tell anybody come from me. Please
tell everybody your family send it.' And with a smile, 'I t'ink dat
Nor was I surprised to see, some weeks later, the poor Spanish
Whoremaster rending his scarce hair as he lay in bed of a morning. And
Mexique said with a smile:
'Dat feller give dat English feller one hundred franc. Now he sorry.'
All of which meant merely that Count Bragard should have spelt his
name, not Bra- but with an l.
And I wonder to this day that the only letter of mine which ever
reached America and my doting family should have been posted by this
highly entertaining personage en ville, whither he went as a
trusted inhabitant of La Ferté to do a few necessary errands for
himself; whither he returned with a good deal of colour in his cheeks
and a good deal of vin rouge in his guts; going and returning
with Tommy, the planton who brought him the Daily Mail every day until Bragard couldn't afford it, after which either B. and
I, or Jean le Nègre took it off Tommy's hands—Tommy for whom we had a
delightful name which I sincerely regret being unable to tell, Tommy
who was an Englishman for all his French planton's uniform and
worshipped the ground on which the Count stood, Tommy who looked like a
boiled lobster and had tears in his eyes when he escorted his idol back
to captivity.... Mirabile dictu, so it was.
Well, such was the departure of a great man from among us.
And now, just to restore the reader's faith in human nature, let me
mention an entertaining incident which occurred during the latter part
of my stay at La Ferté Macé. Our society had been gladdened—or at any
rate galvanized—by the biggest single contribution in its history;
the arrival simultaneously of seven purely extraordinary persons, whose
names alone should be of more than general interest: The Magnifying
Glass, The Trick Raincoat Sheeney, The Messenger Boy, The Hat, The
Alsatian, The Whitebearded Raper and His Son. In order to give the
aforesaid reader an idea of the situation created by these arrivés,
which situation gives the entrance of the Washing-Machine Man—the
entertaining incident, in other words—its full and unique flavour, I
must perforce sketch briefly each member of a truly imposing group. Let
me say at once that, so terrible an impression did the members make,
each inhabitant of The Enormous Room rushed at break-neck speed to his paillasse;
where he stood at bay, assuming as frightening an
attitude as possible. The Enormous Room was full enough already in all
conscience. Between sixty and seventy paillasses, with their
inhabitants and in nearly every case baggage, occupied it so completely
as scarcely to leave room for le poêle at the further end and
the card-table in the centre. No wonder we were struck with terror upon
seeing the seven nouveaux. Judas immediately protested to the planton
who brought them up that there were no places, getting a
roar in response and the door slammed in his face to boot. But the
reader is not to imagine that it was the number alone of the arrivals
which inspired fear and distrust—their appearance was enough to shake
anyone's sanity. I do protest that never have I experienced a feeling
of more profound distrust than upon this occasion; distrust of humanity
in general and in particular of the following individuals:
First, an old man shabbily dressed in a shiny frock coat, upon whose
peering and otherwise very aged face a pair of dirty spectacles rested.
The first thing he did, upon securing a place, was to sit upon his paillasse
in a professorial manner, tremulously extract a journal
from his left coat-pocket, tremblingly produce a large magnifying-glass
from his upper right vest-pocket, and forget everything. Subsequently,
I discovered him promenading the room with an enormous expenditure of
feeble energy, taking tiny steps flat-footedly and leaning in when he
rounded a corner as if he were travelling at terrific speed. He
suffered horribly from rheumatism, could scarcely move after a night on
the floor, and must have been at least sixty-seven years old.
Second, a palish, foppish, undersized, prominent-nosed creature who
affected a deep musical voice and the cut of whose belted raincoat gave
away his profession—he was a pimp, and proud of it, and immediately
upon his arrival boasted thereof, and manifested altogether as
disagreeable a species of bullying vanity as I ever (save in the case
of The Fighting Sheeney) encountered. He got his from Jean le Nègre, as
the reader will learn later.
Third, a super-Western-Union-Messenger type of ancient-youth,
extraordinarily unhandsome if not positively ugly. He had a weak pimply
grey face, was clad in a brownish uniform, puttees (on pipe-stem
calves), and a regular Messenger Boy cap. Upon securing a place he
instantly went to the card-table, seated himself hurriedly, pulled out
a batch of blanks, and wrote a telegram to (I suppose) himself. Then he
returned to his paillasse, lay down with apparently supreme
contentment, and fell asleep.
Fourth, a tiny old man who looked like a caricature of an East-side
second-hand clothes dealer-having a long beard, a long worn and dirty
coat reaching just to his ankles, and a small derby hat on his head.
The very first night his immediate neighbour complained that 'Le
Chapeau' (as he was christened by The Zulu) was guilty of fleas. A great tempest ensued immediately. A planton
summoned. He arrived, heard the case, inspected The Hat (who lay on his paillasse with his derby on, his hand far down the neck of his
shirt, scratching busily and protesting occasionally his entire
innocence), uttered (being the Black Holster) an oath of disgust, and
ordered The Frog to 'couper les cheveux de suite et la barbe aussi;
après il va au bain, le vieux.' The Frog approached and gently
requested The Hat to seat himself upon a chair—the better of two
chairs boasted by The Enormous Room. The Frog, successor to The Barber,
brandished his scissors. The Hat lay and scratched. 'Allez, Nom de
Dieu,' the planton roared. The poor Hat arose trembling,
assumed a praying attitude; and began to talk in a thick and sudden
manner. 'Asseyez-vous là, tête de cochon.' The pitiful Hat
obeyed, clutching his derby to his head in both withered hands. 'Take
off your hat, you son of a bitch,' the planton yelled. 'I don't
want to,' the tragic Hat whimpered. BANG! the derby hit the floor,
bounded upward and lay still. 'Proceed,' the planton thundered
to The Frog; who regarded him with a perfectly inscrutable expression
on his extremely keen face, then turned to his subject, snickered with
the scissors, and fell to. Locks, car-long, fell in crisp succession.
Pete the Shadow, standing beside The Barber, nudged me; and I looked;
and I beheld upon the floor the shorn locks rising and curling with a
movement of their own. . . . 'Now for the beard,' said The Black
Holster.—'No, no, Monsieur, s'il vous plait, pas ma barbe, monsieur
—the Hat wept, trying to kneel.—'Ta gueule or
I'll cut your throat,' the planton replied amiably; and The
Frog, after another look, obeyed. And lo, the beard squirmed gently
upon the floor, alive with a rhythm of its own; squirmed and curled
crisply as it lay...When The Hat was utterly shorn, he was bathed and
became comparatively unremarkable, save for the worn long coat which he
clutched about him, shivering. And he borrowed five francs of me twice,
and paid me punctually each time when his own money arrived, and
presented me with chocolate into the bargain, tipping his hat quickly
and bowing (as he always did whenever he addressed anyone). Poor Old
Hat, B. and I and The Zulu were the only men at La Ferté who liked you.
Fifth, a fat, jolly, decently dressed man.—He had been to a camp
where everyone danced, because an entire ship's crew was interned
there, and the crew were enormously musical, and the captain (having
sold his ship) was rich and tipped the Director regularly; so everyone
danced night and day, and the crew played, for the crew had brought
their music with them.—He had a way of borrowing the paper (Le
Matin) which we bought from one of the lesser plantons who
went to the town and got the Matin there; borrowing it before we
had read it—by the sunset. And his favourite observations were:
'C'est un mauvais pays. Sale temps.'
Sixth and seventh, a vacillating, staggering, decrepit creature with
wildish white beard and eyes, who had been arrested—incredibly
enough—for 'rape.' With him his son, a pleasant youth quiet of
demeanour, inquisitive of nature, with whom we sometimes conversed on
the subject of the English Army.
Such were the individuals whose concerted arrival taxed to its
utmost the capacity of The Enormous Room. And now for my incident—
Which incident is not peculiarly remarkable, but may (as I hope)
serve to revive the reader's trust in humanity—
In the doorway, one day shortly after the arrival of the gentlemen
mentioned, quietly stood a well-dressed,, handsomely middle-aged man,
with a sensitive face culminating in a groomed Van Dyck beard. I
thought for a moment that the Mayor of Orne, or whatever his title is,
had dropped in for an informal inspection of The Enormous Room. Thank
God, I said to myself, it has never looked so chaotically filthy since
I have had the joy of inhabiting it. And sans blague, The
Enormous Room was in a state of really supreme disorder; shirts
were thrown everywhere, a few twine clothes-lines supported various
pants, handkerchiefs and stockings, the poêle was surrounded by
a gesticulating group of nearly undressed prisoners, the stink was
As the door closed behind him, the handsome man moved slowly and
vigorously up The Enormous Room. His eyes were as big as turnips. His
neat felt hat rose with the rising of his hair. His mouth opened in a
gesture of unutterable astonishment. His knees trembled with surprise
and terror, the creases of his trousers quivering. His hands lifted
themselves slowly outward and upward till they reached the level of his
head; moved inward till they grasped his head: and were motionless. In
a deep awe-struck resonant voice be exclaimed simply and sincerely:
'Nom de nom de nom de nom de nom de DIEU!'
Which introduces the reader to The Washing-Machine Man, the
Hollander, owner of a store at Brest where he sold the highly utile contrivances which gave him his name. He, as I remember, had been
charged with aiding and abetting in the case of escaping Holland
deserters—but I know a better reason for his arrest: undoubtedly le gouvernement français
caught him one day in the act of inventing
a super-washing-machine, in fact a white washing machine, for the
private use of the Kaiser and His Family ...
Which brings us, if you please, to the first Delectable Mountain.
VIII. THE WANDERER
ONE day somebody and I were 'catching water' for Monsieur the Chef.
'Catching water' was ordinarily a mixed pleasure. It consisted, as I
have mentioned, in the combined pushing and pulling of a curiously
primitive two-wheeled cart over a distance of perhaps three hundred
yards to a kind of hydrant situated in a species of square upon which
the mediæval structure known as Porte (or Camp) de Triage faced stupidly and threateningly. A
planton always escorted the
catchers through the big door, between the stone wall, which backed the
men's cour, and the end of the building itself or in other words
the canteen. The ten-foot stone wall was, like every other stone wall
connected with La Ferté, topped with three feet of barbed-wire. The
door by which we exited with the water-wagon to the street outside was
at least eight feet high, adorned with several large locks. One pushing
behind, one pulling in the shafts, we rushed the wagon over a sort of
threshold or sill and into the street; and were immediately yelled at
by the planton, who commanded us to stop until he had locked the
door aforesaid. We waited until told to proceed; then yanked and shoved
the reeling vehicle up the street to our right, that is to say along
the wall of the building, but on the outside. All this was pleasant and
astonishing. To feel oneself, however temporarily, outside the eternal
walls in a street connected with a rather selfish and placid-looking
little town (whereof not more than a dozen houses were visible) gave
the prisoner an at once silly and uncanny sensation, much like the
sensation one must get when he starts to skate for the first time in a
dozen years or so. The street met two others in a moment, and here was
a very flourishing sumach bush (as I guess) whose berries shocked the
stunned eye with a savage splash of vermilion. Under this colour one
discovered the Mecca of water-catchers in the form of an iron
contrivance operating by means of a stubby lever which, when pressed
down, yielded grudgingly a spout of whiteness. The contrivance was
placed in sufficiently close proximity to a low wall so that one of the
catchers might conveniently sit on the wall and keep the water spouting
with a continuous pressure of his foot, while the other catcher
manipulated a tin pail with telling effect. Having filled the barrel
which rode on the two wagon-wheels, we turned it with some difficulty
and started it down the street with the tin pail on top; the man in the
shafts leaning back with all his might to offset a certain velocity
promoted by the down-grade, while the man behind tugged helpingly at
the barrel itself. On reaching the door we skewed the machine skilfully
to the left, thereby bringing it to a complete standstill, and waited
for the planton to unlock the locks; which done, we rushed it
violently over the threshold, turned left, still running, and came to a
final stop in front of the cuisine. Here stood three enormous
wooden tubs. We backed the wagon around; then one man opened the spigot
in the rear of the barrel, and at the same time the other elevated the
shafts in a clever manner, inducing the jet d'eau to hit one of
the tubs. One tub filled, we switched the stream wittily to the next.
To fill the three tubs (they were not always all of them empty)
required as many as six or eight delightful trips. After which one
entered the cuisine and got his well-earned reward—coffee with
I have remarked that catching water was a mixed pleasure. The
mixedness of the pleasure came from certain highly respectable
citizens, and more often citizenesses, of la ville de La Ferté
Macé, who had a habit of endowing the poor water-catchers with looks
which I should not like to remember too well, at the same moment
clutching whatever infants they carried or wore or had on leash
spasmodically to them. Honestly, I never ceased to be surprised by the
scorn, contempt, disgust, and frequently sheer ferocity manifested in
the male and particularly in the female faces. All the ladies wore, of
course, black; they were wholly unbeautiful of face or form, some of
them actually repellent; not one should I, even under more favourable
circumstances, have enjoyed meeting. The first time I caught water
everybody in the town was returning from church, and a terrific sight
it was. Vive la bourgeoisie, I said to myself, ducking the
shafts of censure by the simple means of hiding my face behind the
But one day—as I started to inform the reader—somebody and I
were catching water, and in fact had caught our last load, and were
returning with it down the street; when I, who was striding rapidly
behind (trying to lessen with both hands the impetus of the machine)
suddenly tripped and almost fell with surprise.
On the kerb of the little unbeautiful street a figure was sitting, a
female figure dressed in utterly barbaric pinks and vermilions, having
a dark shawl thrown about her shoulders; a positively Arabian face
delimited by a bright coif of some tenuous stuff, slender golden hands
holding with extraordinary delicacy what appeared to be a baby of not
more than three months old; and beside her a black-haired child of
perhaps three years and beside this child a girl of fourteen, dressed
like the woman in crashing hues, with the most exquisite face I had
Nom de dieu,
I thought vaguely. Am I or am I not completely asleep? And the man
in the shafts craned his neck in stupid amazement, and the planton twirled his moustache and assumed that intrepid look which only a
planton (or a gendarme) perfectly knows how to assume in the
presence of female beauty.
That night The Wanderer was absent from
la soupe, having been
called by Apollyon to the latter's office upon a matter of superior
import. Every one was abuzz with the news. The gypsy's wife and three
children, one a baby at the breast, were outside demanding to be made
prisoners. Would the Directeur allow it? They had been told a
number of times by plantons to go away, as they sat patiently
waiting to be admitted to captivity. No threats, pleas nor arguments
had availed. The wife said she was tired of living without her
husband—roars of laughter from all the Belgians and most of the
Hollanders, I regret to say Pete included—and wanted merely and
simply to share his confinement. Moreover, she said, without him she
was unable to support his children; and it was better that they should
grow up with their father as prisoners than starve to death without
him. She would not be moved. The Black Holster told her he would use
force she answered nothing. Finally she had been admitted pending
judgment. Also sprach, highly excited, the balayeur.
'Looks like a f———g hoor,' was the Belgian-Dutch verdict, a
verdict which was obviously due to the costume of the lady in question
almost as much as to the untemperamental natures sojourning at La
Ferté. B. and I agreed that she and her children were the most
beautiful people we had ever seen, or would ever be likely to see. So la soupe
ended, and everybody belched and gasped and
trumpeted up to The Enormous Room as usual.
That evening, about six o'clock, I heard a man crying as if his
heart were broken. I crossed The Enormous Room. Half-lying on his paillasse,
his great beard pouring upon his breast, his face
lowered, his entire body shuddering with sobs, lay The Wanderer.
Several of les hommes were about him, standing in attitudes
ranging from semi-amusement to stupid sympathy, listening to the
anguish which-as from time to time he lifted his majestic head
—poured slowly and brokenly from his lips. I sat down beside him. And
he told me 'Je l'ai acheté pour six cent francs et je l'ai vendu
pour quatre cent cinquante—-it was not a horse of this race
but of the race' (I could not catch the word) 'as long as from here to
that post—j'ai pleuré un quart d'heure comme si j'avais une gosse
morte —and it is seldom I weep over horses—je dis: Bijou,
quittes; au r'oir et bon jour' ...
The vain little dancer interrupted about
. . 'Excuses donc—this was no réformé horse,
such as goes to the front—these are some horses—pardon, whom you
give eat, this, it is colique, that, the other, it's colique
—this never—he could go forty kilometres a day. .. .'
One of the strongest men I have seen in my life is crying because he
has had to sell his favourite horse. No wonder les hommes in
general are not interested. Someone said: 'Be of good cheer, Demestre,
your wife and kids are well enough.'
'Yes-they were not cold; they have a bed like that' (a high gesture
toward the quilt of many colours on which we were sitting, such a quilt
as I have not seen since; a feathery deepness soft to the touch as air
in Spring) 'qui vaut trois fois this of mine—but tu
comprends, le matin il ne fait pas chaud'—then he dropped his
head, and lifted it again, crying:
'Et mes outils,
I had many—and my garments—where are they put,
And I had chemises ...
this is poor' (looking at himself as a
prince might look at his disguise) —-'and like this, that—where?
is not sold ... I never will stay here for la
durée de la guerre. No—bahsht!
To resume, that is why.'
(More than upright in the priceless bed—the twice-streaming
darkness of his beard, his hoarse sweetness of voice—his immense
perfect face and deeply softnesses eyes—pouring voice)
'... my wife sat over there, she spoke to No one and bothered
Nobody—why was my wife taken here and shut up? Had she done anything?
There is a wife who fait la putain and turns to every one and
another, whom I bring another to-morrow ... but a woman qui n'aime
que son mari, qui n'attend que son mari.'
(The tone bulged, and the eyes together.)
'—Ces cigarettes ne tirent pas!'
I added an apology, having presented him with the package. 'Why do
you dépenser pour these? They cost fifteen sous, you may
spend for them if you like, you understand what I'm saying? But some
time when you have nothing' (extraordinarily gently), 'what then?
Better to save for that day... better to buy du tabac and faire yourself; these
sont fait de la poussière du tabac.'
And there was some one to the right who was saying:
c'est Dimamche alors'—wearily. The King lying upon his huge
quilt, sobbing now only a little, heard:
'So—ah—il est tombé un dimanche—ma femme est en nourrice,
elle donne la petite à têter' (the gesture charmed) 'she said to
them she would not eat if they gave her that—ça ne va-ut
rien du tout—il faut de la viande, tous les jours . . .' he
mused. I tried to go.
(graciousness of complete gesture. The sheer kingliness of poverty.
He creased the indescribably soft couverture for me and I sat
and looked into his forehead bounded by the cube of square sliced hair.
Blacker than Africa. Than imagination.)
After this evening I felt that possibly. I knew a little of The
Wanderer, or he of me.
The Wanderer's wife and his two daughters and his baby lived in the
women's quarters. I have not described and cannot describe these four.
The little son of whom he was tremendously proud slept with his father
in the great quilts in The Enormous Room. Of The Wanderer's little son
I may say that he had lolling buttons of eyes sewed on gold flesh, that
he had a habit of turning cart wheels in one-third of his father's
trousers, that we called him The Imp. He ran, he teased, he turned
handsprings, he got in the way, and he even climbed the largest of the
scraggly trees in the cour one day. 'You will fall,' Monsieur
Pet-airs (whose old eyes had a fondness for this irrepressible
creature) remarked with conviction.—'Let him climb,' his father said
quietly. 'I have climbed trees. I have fallen out of trees. I am
alive." The Imp shinnied like a monkey, shouting and crowing, up a lean
gnarled limb—to the amazement of the very planton who later
tried to rape Celina and was caught. This planton put his
gun in readiness and assumed an eager attitude of immutable heroism.
"Will you shoot?' the father inquired politely. 'Indeed it would be a
big thing of which you might boast all your life: I, a planton, shot and killed a six-year-old child in a tree.'—'C'est
emmerdant,' the planton countered, in some confusion—-'he
may be trying to escape. How do I know?'—'Indeed, how do you know
anything?' the father murmured quietly. 'It's a mystère.' The
Imp, all at once, fell. He hit the muddy ground with a disagreeable
thud. The breath was utterly knocked out of him. The Wanderer picked
him up kindly. His son began, with the catching of his breath, to howl
uproariously. 'Serves him right, the—jackanapes,' a Belgian growled.
'I told you so, didn't I?' Monsieur Pet-airs worryingly cried: 'I said
he would fall out of that tree!'—'Pardon, you were right, I think,'
the father smiled pleasantly. 'Don't be sad, my little son, everybody
falls out of trees, they're made for that by God,' and he patted The
Imp, squatting in the mud and smiling. In five minutes The Imp was
trying to scale the shed. 'Come down or I fire,' the planton cried nervously ... and so it was with The Wanderer's son from morning
till night. 'Never,' said Monsieur Pet-airs with solemn desperation,
'have I seen such an incorrigible child, a perfectly incorrigible
child,' and he shook his head and immediately dodged a missile which
had suddenly appeared from nowhere.
Night after night The Imp would play around our beds, where we held
court with our chocolat and our bougie; teasing us,
cajoling us, flattering us, pretending tears, feigning insult, getting
lectures from Monsieur Pet-airs on the evil of cigarette smoking,
keeping us in a state of perpetual inquietude. When he couldn't think
of anything else to do he sang at the top of his clear bright voice:
'C'est la guerre faut pas t'en faire'
and turned a handspring or two for emphasis ... Mexique once cuffed
him for doing something peculiarly mischievous, and he set up a great
crying—instantly The Wanderer was standing over Mexique, his hands
clenched, his eyes sparkling—it took a good deal of persuasion to
convince the parent that the son was in error, meanwhile Mexique
placidly awaited his end ... and neither B. nor I, despite The Imp's
tormentings, could keep from laughing when he all at once with a sort
of crowing cry rushed for the nearest post, jumped upon his hands,
arched his back, and poised head-downward; his feet just touching, the
pillar. Bare-footed, in a bright chemise and one third of his father's
Being now in a class with
'les hommes mariés,'
spent most of the day downstairs, coming up with his little son every
night to sleep in The Enormous Room. But we saw him occasionally in the cour; and every other day when the dreadful cry was raised
'Allez, tout-le-monde, plucher les pommes!'
and we descended to, in fair weather, the lane between the building
and the cour, and in foul (very foul I should say) the
dinosaur-coloured sweating walls of the dinin-groom—The Wanderer
would quietly and slowly appear, along with the other hommes mariés,
and take up the peeling of the amazingly cold potatoes which formed the
pièce de résistance
(in guise of
Soupe) for both women and
men at La Ferté. And if the wedded males did not all of them show up
for this unagreeable task, a dreadful hullabaloo was instantly raised:
'LES HOMMES MARIES!'
and forth would more or less sheepishly issue the delinquents.
And I think The Wanderer, with his wife and children, whom he loved
as never have I seen a man love anything in this world, was partly
happy; walking in the sun when there was any, sleeping with his little
boy in a great gulp of softness. And I remember him pulling his fine
beard into two darknesses—huge-sleeved, pink-checked chemise
—walking kindly like a bear—corduroy bigness of trousers,
waist-line always amorous of knees—finger-ends just catching tops of
enormous pockets. 'When he feels, as I think, partly happy, he corrects
our pronunciation of the ineffable Word—saying:
and smiles. And once Jean le Nègre said to him, as he squatted in
the cour with his little son beside him, his broad strong back
as nearly always against one of the gruesome and minute pommiers—
'Barbu! j'vais te couper la barbe, barbu!' Whereat the father
answered, slowly and seriously:
'Quand vous arrachez
ma barbe, il faut couper ma tête,'
regarding Jean le
Nègre with unspeakably sensitive, tremendously deep, peculiarly soft
eyes. 'My beard is finer than that; you have made it too coarse,' he
gently remarked one day, looking attentively at a piece of photographie which I had been caught in the act of perpetrating;
whereat I bowed my head in silent shame.
Feliska),' I read another day in
the Gestionnaire's book of, judgment. Omonsieur le Gestionnaire,
I should not have liked to have seen those names in my book of
sinners, in my album of filth and blood and incontinence, had I been
you ... O little, very little, gouvernement français, and you
the great and comfortable messieurs of the world, tell me why
you have put a gypsy who dresses like To-morrow among the squabbling
pimps and thieves of yesterday ...
He had been in New York one day.
One child died at sea.
he cried, towering over The Enormous Room suddenly one night in
Autumn, 'je les connais comme ma poche—Bordeaux? Je sais où que
c'est. Madrid? Je sais où que c'est. Tolède? Séville? Naples? Je sais
où que c'est. Je les connais comme ma poche?
He could not read. 'Tell me what it tells,' he said briefly and
without annoyance, when once I offered him the journal. And I took
pleasure in trying to do so.
One fine day, perhaps the finest day, I looked from a window of The
Enormous Room and saw (in the same spot that Lena had enjoyed her
half-hour promenade during confinement in the cabinot, as
related) the wife of The 'Wanderer, "née Feliska,' giving his
baby a bath in a pail, while The Wanderer sat in the sun smoking. About
the pail an absorbed group of putains stood. Several plantons (abandoning for one instant their plantonic demeanour) leaned upon
their guns and watched. Some even smiled a little. And the mother,
holding the brownish, naked, crowing child tenderly, was swimming it
quietly to and fro, to the delight of Celina in particular. To Celina
it waved its arms greetingly. She stooped and spoke to it. The mother
smiled. The Wanderer, looking from time to time at his wife, smoked and
pondered by himself in the sunlight.
This baby was the delight of the
putains at all times.
They used to take turns carrying it when on promenade. The
Wanderer's wife, at such moments, regarded them with a gentle and
There were two girls, as I said. One, the littlest girl I ever saw
walk and act by herself, looked exactly like a golliwog. This was
because of the huge mop of black hair. She was very pretty. She used to
sit with her mother and move her toes quietly for her own private
amusement. The older sister was as divine a creature as God in his
skilful and infinite wisdom ever created. Her intensely sexual face
greeted us nearly always as we descended pour la soupe. She
would come up to B. and me slenderly and ask, with the brightest and
darkest eyes in the world:
and we would present her with a big or small, as the case might be,
morceau de chocolat.
'We even called her
Chocolat. Her skin
was nearly sheer gold; her fingers and feet delicately formed; her
teeth wonderfully white; her hair incomparably black and abundant. Her
lips would have seduced, I think, le gouvernement français itself. Or any saint.
Le gouvernement français
decided in its infinite but unskilful wisdom that The Wanderer,
being an inexpressibly bad man (guilty of who knows what gentleness,
strength and beauty) should suffer as much as he was capable of
suffering. In other words, it decided (through its Three Wise Men, who
formed the visiting Commission whereof I speak anon) that the wife, her
baby, her two girls, and her little son should be separated from the
husband by miles and by stone walls and by barbed wire and by Law. Or
perhaps (there was a rumour to this effect) the Three Wise Men
discovered that the father of these incredibly exquisite children was
not her lawful husband. And of course, this being the case, the utterly
and incomparably moral French Government saw its duty plainly; which
duty was to inflict the ultimate anguish of separation upon the sinners
concerned. I know that The Wanderer came from la commission with
tears of anger in his great eyes. I know that some days later he, along
with that deadly and poisonous criminal Monsieur Auguste, and that aged
arch-traitor Monsieur Pet-airs, and that incomparably wicked person
Surplice, and a ragged gentle being who one day presented us with a
broken spoon which he had found somewhere—the gift being a purely
spontaneous mark of approval and affection—who for this reason was
known to us as The Spoonman, had the vast and immeasurable honour of
departing for Précigné pour la durée de la guerre. If ever I can
create by some occult process of imagining a deed so perfectly cruel as
the deed perpetrated in the case of Joseph Demestre, I shall consider
myself a genius. Then let us admit that the Three Wise Men were
geniuses. And let us, also and softly, admit that it takes a good and
great government perfectly to negate mercy. And let us, bowing our
minds smoothly and darkly, repeat with Monsieur le Curé—'toujours
The Wanderer was almost insane when he heard the judgment of
commission. And hereupon I must pay my respects to Monsieur
Pet-airs; whom I had ever liked, but whose spirit I had not, up to the
night preceding The Wanderer's departure, fully appreciated. Monsieur
Petairs sat for hours at the card-table, his glasses continually
fogging, censuring The Wanderer in tones of apparent annoyance for his
frightful weeping (and now and then himself sniffing faintly with his
big red nose); sat for hours pretending to take dictation from Joseph
Dernestre, in reality composing a great letter or series of great
letters to the civil and I guess military authorities of Orne on the
subject of the injustice done to the father of four children, one a
baby at the breast, now about to be separated from all he held dear and
good in this world. 'I appeal' (Monsieur Pet-airs wrote, in his
boisterously careful, not to say elegant, script) 'to your sense of
mercy and of fair play and of honour. It is not merely an unjust thing
which is being done, not merely an unreasonable thing, it is an
unnatural thing. . . .' As he wrote I found it hard to believe that
this was the aged and decrepit and fussing biped whom I had known, whom
I had caricatured, with whom I had talked upon ponderous subjects (a
comparison between the Belgian and French cities with respect to their
location as favouring progress and prosperity, for example); who had
with a certain comic shyness revealed to me a secret scheme for
reclaiming inundated territories by means of an extraordinary pump 'of
my invention.' Yet this was he, this was Monsieur Pet-airs Lui-Même;
and I enjoyed peculiarly making his complete acquaintance for the first
and only time.
May the Heavens prosper him.
The next day The Wanderer appeared in the
proudly in a shirt of solid vermilion.
He kissed his wife- —excuse me, Monsieur Malvy, I should say the
mother of his children—crying very bitterly and suddenly.
yelled for him to line up with the rest, who
were waiting outside the gate, bag and baggage. He covered his great
king's eyes with his long golden hands and went.
With him disappeared unspeakable sunlight., and the dark, keen,
bright strength of the earth.
THIS is the name of the second Delectable Mountain. Zulu is he
called, partly because he looks like what I have never seen, partly
because the sounds somehow relate to his personality and partly because
they seemed to please him.
He is, of all the indescribables whom I have known, definitely the
most completely or entirely indescribable. Then (quoth my reader) you
will not attempt to describe him, I trust.—Alas, in the medium which
I am now using a certain amount or at least quality of description is
disgustingly necessary. 'Were I free with a canvas and some colours ...
but I am not free. And so I will buck the impossible to the best of my
ability. Which, after all, is one way of wasting your time.
He did not come and he did not go. He drifted.
His angular anatomy expended and collected itself with an effortless
spontaneity which is the prerogative of perhaps fairies, or at any rate
of those things in which we no longer believe. But he was more. There
are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple
reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort—things
which are always inside of us and in fact are us and which consequently
will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about
them—are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A
Verb; an IS. The Zulu, then, I must perforce call an IS.
In this chapter I shall pretend briefly to describe certain aspects
and attributes of an IS. Which IS we have called The Zulu, who Himself
intrinsically and indubitably escapes analysis. Allons!
Let me first describe a Sunday morning when we lifted our heads to
the fight of the stove-pipes.
I was awakened by a roar, a human roar, a roar such as only a
Hollander can make when a Hollander is honestly angry. As I rose from
the domain of the subconscious, the idea that the roar belonged to Bill
the Hollander became conviction. Bill the Hollander, alias America
Lakes, slept next to The Young Pole (by whom I refer to that young
stupid-looking farmer with that peaches-and-cream complexion and those
black puttees who had formed the rear rank, with the aid of The Zulu
Himself, upon the arrival of Baby-snatcher, Bill, Box, Zulu, and Young
Pole aforesaid). Now this same Young Pole was a case. Insufferably vain
and self-confident was he. Monsieur Auguste palliated most of his
conceited offensiveness on the ground that he was un garçon; we, on the ground that he was obviously and unmistakably The Zulu's
friend. This Young Pole, I remember, had me design upon the wall over
his paillasse (shortly after his arrival) a virile soldat clutching a somewhat dubious flag—I made the latter from descriptions
furnished by Monsieur Auguste and The Young Pole himself—intended, I
may add, to be the flag of Poland. Underneath which beautiful picture I
was instructed to perpetrate the flourishing inscription:
'Vive la Pologne,'
which I did to the best of my limited ability and for Monsieur
Auguste's sake. No sooner was the pbotographie complete than The
Young Pole, patriotically elated, set out to demonstrate the
superiority of his race and nation by making himself obnoxious. I will
give him this credit: he was pas méchant, he was in fact a
stupid boy. The Fighting Sheeney temporarily took him down a peg by
flooring him in the nightly 'Boxe' which The Fighting Sheeney
instituted immediately upon the arrival of The Trick Raincoat—a
previous acquaintance of The Sheeney's at La Santé; the similarity of
occupations (or nonoccupation; I refer to the profession of pimp)
having cemented a friendship between these two. But, for all that The
Young Pole's Sunday-best clothes were covered with filth, and
for all that his polished puttees were soiled and scratched by the
splintery floor of The Enormous Room (he having rolled well off the
blanket upon which the wrestling was supposed to occur), his spirit was
dashed but for the moment. He set about cleaning and polishing himself,
combing his hair, smoothing his cap—and was as cocky as ever next
morning. In fact I think he was cockier; for he took to guying Bill the
Hollander in French, with which tongue Bill was only faintly familiar
and of which, consequently, he was doubly suspicious. As The Young Pole
lay in bed of an evening after lumières éteintes, he would guy
his somewhat massive neighbour in a childish, almost girlish voice,
shouting with laughter when The Triangle rose on one arm and volleyed
Dutch at him, pausing whenever The Triangle's good-nature threatened to
approach the breaking-point, resuming after a minute or two when The
Triangle appeared to be on the point of falling into the arms of
Morpheus. This sort of blaguing had gone on for several nights without
dangerous results. It was, however, inevitable that sooner or later
something would happen—and as we lifted our heads on this particular
Sunday morn we were not surprised to see The Hollander himself standing
over The Young Pole, with clenched paws, wringing shoulders, and an
apocalyptic face whiter than Death's horse.
The Young Pole seemed incapable of realizing that the climax had
come. He lay on his back, cringing a little and laughing foolishly. The
Zulu (who slept next to him on our side) had, apparently, just lighted
a cigarette which projected upward from a slender bolder. The Zulu's
face was as always, absolutely expressionless. His chin, with a goodly
growth of beard, protruded tranquilly from the blanket which concealed
the rest of him with the exception of his feet—feet which were
ensconced in large, somewhat clumsy leather boots. As The Zulu wore no
socks, the X's of the rawhide lacings on his bare flesh (blue, of
course, with cold) presented a rather fascinating kinesis. The Zulu
was, to all intents and purposes, gazing at the ceiling ...
Bill the Hollander, clad only in his shirt, his long, lean, muscled
legs planted far apart, shook one fist after another at the recumbent
Young Pole, thundering (curiously enough in English):
'Come on, you Gottverdummer son-of-a-bitch of a Polak bastard, and
fight! Get up out o' there, you Polak boor, and I'll kill you, you
Gottverdummer bastard you! I stood enough o' your Gottverdummer
nonsense, you Gottverdummer,' etc.
As Bill the Hollander's thunder crescendoed steadily, cramming the
utmost corners of The Enormous Room with Gottverdummers which echoingly
telescoped one another, producing a dim, huge, shaggy mass of vocal
anger, The Young Pole began to laugh less and less; began to plead and
excuse and palliate and remonstrate—and all the while the triangular
tower in its naked legs and its palpitating chemise brandished its vast
fists nearer and nearer, its ghastly yellow lips hurling cumulative
volumes of rhythmic profanity, its blue eyes snapping like
fire-crackers, its enormous hairy chest heaving and tumbling like a
monstrous hunk of sea-weed, its flat soiled feet curling and uncurling
their ten sour mutilated toes.
The Zulu puffed gently as he lay.
Bill the Hollander's jaw, sticking into the direction of The Young
Pole's helpless gestures, looked (with the pitiless scorching face
behind it) like some square house carried in the fore of a white
cyclone. The Zulu depressed his chin; his eyes (poking slowly from
beneath the visor of the cap which he always wore, in bed or out of it)
regarded the vomiting tower with an abstracted interest. He allowed one
hand delicately to escape from the blanket and quietly to remove from
his lips the holder with its gently-burning cigarette
'You won't, eh? You bloody Polak coward!' and with a speed in
comparison to which lightning is snail-like the tower reached twice for
the peaches-and-cream cheeks of the prone victim, who set up a tragic
bellowing of his own, writhed upon his somewhat dislocated paillasse
, raised his elbows shieldingly, and started to get to his feet by way
of his trembling knees—to be promptly knocked flat. Such a howling as
The Young Pole set up I have rarely heard: he crawled sideways; he got
on one knee; he made a dart forward—and was caught cleanly by an
uppercut, lifted through the air a yard, and spread-eagled against the
stove which collapsed with an unearthly crash, yielding an inky shower
of soot upon the combatants and almost crowning The Hollander
simultaneously with three four-foot sections of pipe. The Young Pole
hit the floor, shouting, on his head at the apogee of a neatly executed
back-somersault, collapsed; rose yelling, and with flashing eyes picked
up a length of the ruined tuyau which be lifted high in air—at
which the Hollander seized in both fists a similar piece, brought it
instantly forward and sideways with incognizable velocity and delivered
such an immense wallop as smoothed The Young Pole horizontally to a
distance of six feet; where he suddenly landed, stove-pipe and all, in
a crash of entire collapse, having passed clear over The Zulu's bed.
The Zulu, remarking:
floated hingingly to a sitting position and was saluted by 'Lie
down, you Gottverdummer Polaker, I'll get you next'—in spite of which
he gathered himself to rise upward, catching as he did so a swish of
The Hollander's pipe-length which made his cigarette leap neatly,
holder and all, upward and outward. The Young Pole had by this time
recovered sufficiently to get upon his hands and knees behind The Zulu,
who was hurriedly but calmly propelling himself in the direction of the
cherished cigarette-holder, which had rolled under the remains of the
stove. Bill the Hollander made for his enemy, raising perpendicularly
ten feet in air the unrecognizably dented summit of the pipe which his
colossal fists easily encompassed, the muscles in his tree-like arms
rolling beneath the chemise like balloons. The Young Pole with a shriek
of fear climbed The Zulu—receiving just as he had compassed this
human hurdle a crack on the seat of his black pants that stood him
directly upon his head. Pivoting slightly for an instant he fell
loosely at full length on his own paillasse, and lay sobbing and
roaring, one elbow protectingly raised, interspersing the
inarticulations of woe with a number of sincerely uttered Assez!'s. Meanwhile The Zulu had discovered the whereabouts of his treasure, had
driftingly resumed his original position; and was quietly inserting the
also-captured cigarette which appeared somewhat confused by its violent
aerial journey. Over The Young Pole stood toweringly Bill the
Hollander, his shirt almost in ribbons about his thick, bulging neck,
thundering as only Hollanders thunder:
'Have you got enough, you Gottverdummer Polak?' and The Young Pole,
alternating nursing the mutilated pulp where his face had been and
guarding it with futile and helpless and almost infantile gestures of
his quivering hands, was sobbing:
'Oui, Oui, Oui, Assez!'
And Bill the Hollander hugely turned to The Zulu, stepping
accurately to the paillasse of that individual, and demanded:
'And you, you Gottverdummer Polaker, do you want t' fight?'
at which The Zulu gently waved in recognition of the compliment and
delicately and hastily replied, between slow puffs:
Whereat Bill the Hollander registered a disgusted kick in The Young
Pole's direction and swearingly resumed his paillasse.
All this, the reader understands, having taken place in the terribly
cold darkness of the half-dawn.
That very day, after a great deal of examination (on the part of the
of the participants in this Homeric struggle—said
examination failing to reveal the particular guilt or the particular
innocence of either—Judas, immaculately attired in a white coat,
arrived from downstairs with a step-ladder and proceeded with
everyone's assistance to reconstruct the original tuyau. And a
pretty picture Judas made. And a pretty bum job he made. But anyway the
stove-pipe drew; and every one thanked God and fought for places about le poêle.
And Monsieur Pet-airs hoped there would be no more fights
One might think that The Young Pole had learned a lesson. But no. He
had learned (it is true) to leave his immediate neighbour, America
Lakes, to himself; but that is all he had learned. In a few days he was
up and about, as full de la blague as ever. The Zulu seemed at
times almost worried about him. They spoke together in Polish
frequently and—on The Zulu's part—earnestly. As subsequent events
proved, whatever counsel The Zulu imparted was wasted upon his youthful
friend. But let us turn for a moment to The Zulu himself.
He could not, of course, write any language whatever. Two words of
French he knew: they were fromage and chapeau. The former
he pronounced 'grumidge.' In English his vocabulary was even more
simple, consisting of the single word 'po-lees-man.' Neither B. nor
myself understood a syllable of Polish (though we subsequently learned jin-dobri, nima-zatz, zampni-pisk
and shimay pisk,
to delight The Zulu hugely by giving him
every morning, also by asking him if be had a
consequently in that direction the path of communication was to all
intents shut. And withal—I say this not to astonish my reader but
merely in the interests of truth—I have never in my life so perfectly
understood (even to the most exquisite nuances) whatever idea another
human being desired at any moment to communicate to me, as I have in
the case of The Zulu. And I had one-third the command over the written
word that he had over the unwritten and the unspoken—not merely that;
over the unspeakable and the unwritable God knows this history would
rank with the deep art of all time.
It may be supposed that he was master of an intricate and delicate
system whereby ideas were conveyed through signs of various sorts. On
the contrary. He employed signs more or less, but they were in every
case extraordinarily simple. The secret of his means of complete and
unutterable communication lay in that very essence which I have only
defined as an IS; ended and began with an innate and unlearnable
control over all which one can only describe as the homogeneously
tactile. The Zulu, for example, communicated the following facts in a
very few minutes, with unspeakable case, one day shortly after his
He had been formerly a Polish farmer, with a wife and four children.
He had left Poland to come to France, where one earned more money. His
friend (The Young Pole) accompanied him. They were enjoying life
placidly in it may have been Brest—I forget—when one night the
gendarmes suddenly broke into their room, raided it, turned it
bottom-side up, handcuffed the two archcriminals wrist to wrist, and
said, 'Come with us.' Neither The Zulu nor The Young Pole had the ghost
of an idea what all this meant or where they were going. They had no
choice but to obey, and obey they did. Every one boarded a train. Every
one got out. Bill the Hollander and The Baby-snatcher appeared under
escort, handcuffed to each other. They were immediately re-handcuffed
to the Polish delegation. The four culprits were hustled, by rapid
stages, through several small prisons to La Ferté Macé. During this
journey (which consumed several nights and days) the handcuffs were not
once removed. The prisoners slept sitting up or falling over one
another. They urinated and defecated with the handcuffs on, all of them
hitched together. At various times they complained to their captors
that the agony caused by the swelling of their wrists was
unbearable—this agony, being the result of over-tightness of the
handcuffs, might easily have been relieved by one of the plantons without loss of time or prestige. Their complaints were greeted by
commands to keep their mouths shut or they'd get it worse than they had
it. Finally they hove in sight of La Ferté and the handcuffs were
removed in order to enable two of the prisoners to escort The Zulu's
box upon their shoulders, which said prisoners were only too happy to
do under the circumstances. This box, containing not only The Zulu's
personal effects but also a great array of cartridges, knives and
heaven knows what extraordinary souvenirs which he had gathered from
God knows where, was a strong point in the disfavour of The Zulu from
the beginning; and was consequently brought along as evidence. Upon
arriving all had been searched, the box included, and sent to The
Enormous Room. The Zulu (at the conclusion of this dumb and eloquent
recital) slipped his sleeve gently above his wrist and exhibited a
bluish ring, at whose persistence upon the flesh he evinced great
surprise and pleasure, winking happily to us. Several days later I got
the same story from The Young Pole in French; but after some little
difficulty due to linguistic misunderstandings, and only after a half
hour's intensive conversation. So far as directness, accuracy and speed
are concerned, between the method of language and the method of The
Zulu there was not the slightest comparison.
Not long after The Zulu arrived I witnessed a mystery: it was toward
the second Soupe, and B. and I were proceeding (our spoons in
our hands) in the direction of the door, when beside us suddenly
appeared The Zulu —who took us by the shoulders gently and (after
carefully looking about him) produced from, as nearly as one could see,
his right ear a twenty-franc note, asking us in a few well-chosen
silences to purchase with it confiture, fromage, and chocolat at the canteen. He silently apologized for encumbering us with these
errands, averring that he had been found when he arrived to have no
money upon him and consequently wished to keep intact this little
tradition. We were only too delighted to assist so remarkable a
prestidigitator—we scarcely knew him at that time and après la
soupe we bought as requested, conveying the treasures to our bunks
and keeping guard over them. About fifteen minutes after the planton had locked every one in The Zulu driftingly arrived before us;
whereupon we attempted to give him his purchases—but be winked and
told us wordlessly that we should (if we would be so kind) keep them
for him, immediately following this suggestion by a request that we
open the marmalade or jam or whatever it might be called—preserve is
perhaps the best word. 'We complied with alacrity. Now (he said
soundlessly), you may if you like offer me a little. We did. Now have
some yourselves, The Zulu commanded. So we attacked the confiture with a will, spreading it on pieces, or rather chunks, of the brownish
bread, whose faintly rotten odour is one element of the life at La
Ferté which I, for one, find it easier to remember than to forget. And
next, in similar fashion, we opened the cheese and offered some to our
visitor; and finally the chocolate. Whereupon The Zulu rose up, thanked
us tremendously for our gifts, and—winking solemnly—floated off.
Next day he told us that he wanted us to eat all we could of the
delicacies we had purchased, whether or no he happened to be in the
vicinity. He also informed us that when they were gone we should buy
more until the twenty francs gave out. And, so generous were our
appetites, it was not more than two or three weeks later that The Zulu,
having discovered that our supplies were exhausted, produced from his
back hair a neatly folded twenty-franc note; wherewith we invaded the
canteen with renewed violence. About this time The Spy got busy and The
Zulu, with The Young Pole for interpreter, was summoned to Monsieur
le Directeur, who stripped The Zulu and searched every wrinkle and
crevice of his tranquil anatomy for money (so The Zulu vividly informed
us) —finding not a sou. The Zulu, who vastly enjoyed the
discomfiture of Monsieur, cautiously extracted (shortly after this) a
twenty-franc note from the back of his neck, and presented it to us
with extreme care. I may say that most of his money went for cheese, of
which The Zulu was almost abnormally fond. Nothing more suddenly
delightful has happened to me than happened, one day, when I was
leaning from the next to the last window—the last being the property
of users of the cabinet—of The Enormous Room,
contemplating the muddy expanse below, and wondering how the Hollanders
had ever allowed the last two windows to be opened. Margherite passed
from the door of the building proper to the little washing shed. As the
sentinel's back was turned I saluted her,' and she looked up and smiled
pleasantly. And then—a hand leapt quietly outward from the wall, just
to my right; the fingers clenched gently upon one half a newly-broken
cheese; the hand moved silently in my direction cheese and all, pausing
when perhaps six inches from my nose. I took the cheese from the hand,
which departed as if by magic; and a little later had the pleasure of
being joined at my window by The Zulu, who was brushing cheese crumbs
from his long slender Mandarin moustaches, and who expressed profound
astonishment and equally profound satisfaction upon noting that I too
had been enjoying the pleasures of cheese. Not once, but several times,
this Excalibur appearance startled myself and B.: in fact the extreme
modesty and incomparable shyness of The Zulu found only in this
procedure a satisfactory method of bestowing presents upon his two
friends ... I would I could see that long hand once more, the sensitive
fingers poised upon a half-Camembert; the bodiless arm swinging gently
and surely with a derrick-like grace and certainty in my direction....
Not very long after The Zulu's arrival occurred an incident which I
give with pleasure because it shows the dauntless and indomitable, not
to say intrepid, stuff of which plantons are made. The single seau which supplied the (at this time) sixty-odd inhabitants of The
Enormous Room with drinking water had done its duty, shortly after our
arrival from the first Soupe, with such thoroughness as to leave
a number of unfortunates (among whom I was one) waterless. The interval
between soupe and promenade loomed darkly and thirstily before
said unfortunates. As the minutes passed, it loomed with greater and
greater distinctness. At the end of twenty minutes our
thirst-stimulated by an especially salty dose of luke-warm water for
lunch-attained truly desperate proportions. Several of the bolder
thirsters leaned from the various windows of the room and cried
'De l'eau, planton; de l'eau, s'il vous plait'
upon which the guardian of the law looked up suspiciously; pausing a
moment as if to identify the scoundrels whose temerity had so far got
the better of their understanding as to lead them to address him, a planton,
in familiar terms-and then grimly resumed his walk, gun on
shoulder, revolver on hip, the picture of simple and unaffected
majesty. Whereat, seeing that entreaties were of no avail, we put our
seditious and dangerous heads together and formulated a very great
scheme: to wit, the lowering of an empty tin-pail about eight inches
high, which tin-pail had formerly contained confiture, which confiture
had long since passed into the guts of Monsieur Auguste,
The Zulu, B., myself, and—as The Zulu's friend—The Young Pole. Now
this fiendish imitation of The Old Oaken Bucket That Hung In The Well
was to be lowered to the good-hearted Margherite (who went to and fro
from the door of the building to the washing-shed) ; who was to fill it
for us at the pump situated directly under us in a cavernous chilly
cave on the ground-floor, then re-hitch it to the rope, and guide its
upward beginning. The rest was in the hands of Fate.
Bold might the
planton be; we were no
made a little speech to everyone in general desiring them to lend us
their belts. The Zulu, the immensity of whose pleasure in this venture
cannot be even indicated, stripped off his belt with unearthly
agility—Monsieur Auguste gave his, which we tongue-holed to The
Zulu's—somebody else contributed a necktie—another a
shoe-string—The Young Pole his scarf, of which he was impossibly
proud—etc. The extraordinary rope so constructed was now tried out in
The Enormous Room, and found to be about thirty-eight feet long; or in
other words of ample length, considering that the window itself was
only three stories above terra firma. Margherite was put on her guard
by signs, executed when the planton's back was turned (which it
was exactly half the time, as the planton's patrol stretched at
right angles to the wing of the building whose troisième étage
we occupied). Having attached the minute bucket to one end (the
stronger looking end, the end which had more belts and less neckties
and handkerchiefs) of our improvised rope, B., Harree, myself and The
Zulu bided our time at la fenêtre—then seizing a favourable
opportunity, in enormous haste began paying out the infernal
contrivance. Down went the sinful tin-pail, safely past the
window-ledge just below us, straight and true into the waiting hands of
the faithful Margherite—who had just received it and was on the point
of undoing the bucket from the first belt when, lo! who should come in
sight around the corner but the pimply faced, brilliantly-uniformed,
glitteringly-putteed sergent de plantons lui-même. Such
amazement as dominated his puny features I have rarely seen equalled.
He stopped dead in his tracks; for one second stupidly contemplated the
window, ourselves, the wall, seven neckties, five belts, three
handkerchiefs, a scarf, two shoe-strings, the jam-pail, and
Margherite—then, wheeling, noticed the planton (who peacefully
and with dignity was pursuing a course which carried him further and
further from the zone of operations) and finally, spinning around
again, cried shrilly:
'Qu'est-ce que vous avez foutu avec cette machine-là?
At which cry the
planton staggered, rotated, brought his gun
clumsily off his shoulder, and stared, trembling all over with emotion,
at his superior.
screamed the pimply
sergent de plantons,
in our direction.
Margherite, at his first command, had let go the jam-pail and sought
shelter in the building. Simultaneously with her flight we all began
pulling on the rope for dear life, making the bucket bound against the
Upon hearing the dreadful exclamation
almost fell down. With a supreme effort he turned toward
the wing of the building. The sight which greeted his eyes caused him
to excrete a single mouthful of vivid profanity, made him grip his gun
like a hero, set every nerve in his noble and faithful body tingling.
Apparently, however, he had forgotten completely his gun, which lay
faithfully and expectingly in his two noble hands.
'Attention!' screamed the sergeant.
did something to his gun very aimlessly and
'FIRE!' shrieked the sergeant, scarlet with rage and mortification.
The planton, cool as steel, raised his gun.
'NOM DE DIEU TIREZ!'
The bucket, in big merry sounding jumps, was approaching the window
took aim, falling fearlessly on one knee,
and closing both eyes. I confess that my blood stood on tip-toe; but
what was death to the loss of that jam-bucket, let alone everyone's
apparel which everyone had so generously lent? We kept on hauling
silently. Out of the corner of my eye I beheld the planton—now
on both knees, musket held to his shoulder by his left arm and pointing
unflinchingly at us one and all—hunting with his right arm and hand
in his belt for cartridges! A few seconds after this fleeting glimpse
of heroic devotion had penetrated my considerably heightened
sensitivity—up suddenly came the bucket and over backwards we all
went together on the floor of The Enormous Room. And as we fell I beard
a cry like the cry of a boiler announcing noon
I recollect that I lay on the floor for some minutes, half on top of
The Zulu and three-quarters smothered by Monsieur Auguste, shaking with
Then we all took to our hands and knees, and made for our bunks.
I believe no one (curiously enough) got punished for this atrocious
misdemeanour—except the planton; who was punished for not
shooting us, although God knows he had done his very best.
And now I must chronicle the famous duel which took place between
The Zulu's compatriot, The Young Pole, and that herebefore introduced
pimp, The Fighting Sheeney; a duel which came as a climax to a vast
deal of teasing on the part of The Young Pole—who, as previously
remarked, had not learned his lesson from Bill the Hollander with the
thoroughness which one might have expected of him.
In addition to a bit of French and considerable Spanish,
Rockyfeller's valet spoke Russian very (I did not have to be told)
badly. The Young Pole, perhaps sore at being rolled on the floor of The
Enormous Room by the worthy Sheeney, set about nagging him just as he
had done in the case of neighbour Bill. His favourite epithet for the
conqueror was 'moshki' or 'moski,' I never was sure which. Whatever it
meant (The Young Pole and Monsieur Auguste informed me that it meant
'Jew' in a highly derogatory sense) its effect upon the noble Sheeney
was definitely unpleasant. But when coupled with the word 'moskosi,'
accent on the second syllable or long o, its effect was more than
unpleasant—it was really disagreeable. At intervals throughout the
day, on promenade, of an evening, the ugly phrase
resounded through The Enormous Room. The Fighting Sheeney, then
rapidly convalescing from syphilis, bided his time. The Young Pole,
moreover, had a way of jesting upon the subject of The Sheeney's
infirmity. He would, particularly during the afternoon promenade, shout
various none too subtle allusions to Moshki's physical condition for
the benefit of les femmes. And in response would come peals of
laughter from the girls' windows, shrill peals and deep guttural peals
intersecting and breaking joints like overlapping shingles on the roof
of Craziness. So hearty did these responses become one afternoon that,
in answer to loud pleas from the injured Moshki, the pimply sergent
de plantons himself came to the gate in the barbed-wire fence and
delivered a lecture upon the seriousness of venereal ailments
(heart-felt, I should judge by the looks of him) as follows:
'Il ne faut pas rigoler de ça. Savez-vous? C'est une maladie, ça,
' which little sermon contrasted agreeably with his usual remarks
concerning and in the presence of les femmes, whereof the
essence lay in a single phrase of prepositional significance:
'bonne pour coucher avec'
he would say shrilly, his puny eyes assuming an expression of
amorous wisdom which was most becoming.... The Sheeney looked sheepish,
One day we were all upon afternoon promenade, it being
(for that part of the world), under the auspices of by all odds one of
the littlest and mildest and most delicate specimens of mankind that
ever donned the high and dangerous duties of a planton. As B.
says: 'He always looked like a June bride.' This mannikin could not
have been five feet high, was perfectly proportioned (unless we except
the musket upon his shoulder and the bayonet at his belt), and minced
to and fro with a feminine grace which suggested—at least to les
deux citoyens of These United States—the extremely authentic
epithet 'fairy.' He had such a pretty face! and so cute a moustache!
and such darling legs! and such a wonderful smile! For plantonic
purposes the smile—which brought two little dimples into his pink
cheeks—was for the most part suppressed. However, it was impossible
for this little thing to look stern: the best he could do was to look
poignantly sad. Which he did with great success, standing like a tragic
last piece of uneaten candy in his big box at the end of the cour, and eyeing the sinful
hommes with sad eyes. 'Won't anyone eat
me?—he seemed to ask.—I'm really delicious, you know, perfectly
delicious, really I am.
To resume, everyone being in the
well filled, not only from the point of view of space but of sound. A
barn-yard crammed with pigs, cows, horses, ducks, geese, hens, cats and
dogs could not possibly have produced one-fifth of the racket that
emanated, spontaneously and inevitably, from the cour. Above which
racket I heard tout à coup a roar of pain and surprise; and
looking up, with some interest and also in some alarm, beheld The Young
Pole backing and filling and slipping in the deep ooze under the
strenuous jolts, jabs and even haymakers of The Fighting Sheeney; who,
with his coat off and his cap off and his shirt open at the neck, was
swatting luxuriously and for all he was worth that round helpless face
and that peaches-and-cream complexion. From where I stood, at a
distance of six or eight yards, the impact of The Sheeney's fist on The
Young Pole's jaw and cheeks was disconcertingly audible. The latter
made not the slightest attempt to defend himself, let alone retaliate;
he merely skidded about, roaring, and clutching desperately out of
harm's way his long white scarf, of which (as I have mentioned) he was
extremely proud. But for the sheer brutality of the scene it would have
been highly ludicrous. The Sheeney was swinging like a windmill and
hammering like a blacksmith. His ugly head lowered, the chin
protruding, lips drawn back in a snarl, teeth sticking forth like a
gorilla's, he banged and smote that moon-shaped physiognomy as if his
life depended upon utterly annihilating it. And annihilate it he
doubtless would have, but for the prompt (not to say punctual) heroism
of The June Bride—who, lowering his huge gun, made a rush for the
fight; stopped at a safe distance; and began squeaking at the very top
and even summit of his faint girlish voice:
'Aux armes! Aux armes!'
which plaintive and intrepid utterance by virtue of its very
fragility penetrated the building and released The Black Holster—who
bounded through the gate, roaring a salutation as he bounded, and in a
jiffy had cuffed the participants apart. 'All right, whose fault is
this!' he roared. And a number of highly reputable spectators such as
Judas and The Fighting Sheeney himself said it was The Young Pole's
fault. 'Allez! Au cabinot! De suite!' —-and off trickled the
sobbing Young Pole, winding his great scarf comfortingly about him, to
Some few minutes later we encountered The Zulu speaking with
Monsieur Auguste. Monsieur Auguste was very sorry. He admitted that The
Young Pole had brought his punishment upon himself. But he was only a
boy. The Zulu's reaction to the affair was absolutely profound: he
indicated les femmes with one eye, his trousers with another,
and converted his utterly plastic personality into an amorous machine
for several seconds, thereby vividly indicating the root of the
difficulty—then drifting softly off began playing hide-and-seek with
the much delighted Little Man In The Orange Cap. That the stupidity of
his friend The Young Pole hurt The Zulu deeply I discovered by looking
at him as he lay in bed the next morning, limply and sorrowfully prone;
beside him the empty paillasse which meant cabinot ... his perfectly extraordinary face (a face perfectly at once fluent and
angular, expressionless and sensitive) told me many things whereof even
The Zulu might not speak, things which in order entirely to suffer he
kept carefully and thoroughly ensconced behind his rigid and mobile
From the day that The Young Pole emerged from
cabinot he was
our friend. The blague had been at last knocked out of him, thanks to Un Mangeur de Blanc,
as the little Machine-Fixer expressively
called The Fighting Sheeney. Which mangeur, by the way (having
been exonerated from all blame by the more enlightened spectators of
the unequal battle) strode immediately and ferociously over to B. and
me, a hideous grin crackling upon the coarse surface of his mug, and
demanded—hiking at the front of his trousers
'Bon, eh? Bien fait, eh?
and a few days later asked us for money, even hinting that he would
be pleased to become our special protector. I think, as a matter of
fact, we 'lent' him one-eighth of what he wanted (perhaps we lent him
five cents) in order to avoid trouble and get rid of him. At any rate
he didn't bother us particularly afterwards; and if a nickel could
accomplish that a nickel should be proud of itself.
And always, through the falling greyness of the desolate Autumn, The
Zulu was beside us, or wrapped around a tree in the cour, or melting in
a post after tapping Mexique, or suffering from toothache—God, I wish
I could see him expressing for us the wickedness of toothache or losing
his shoes and finding them under Garibaldi's bed (with a huge
perpendicular wink which told tomes about Garibaldi's fatal
propensities for ownership), or marvelling silently at the power of les femmes
à propos his young friend—who, occasionally resuming
his former bravado, would stand in the black evil rain with his white
warm scarf twined about him, singing as of old:
'Je suis content
pour mettre dedans
suis pas pressé
ah-la-la-la. . .'
... And The Zulu came out of
the expressionless expression which he had carried into it; and God
knows what the Three Wise Men found out about him, but (whatever it
was) they never found and never will find that Something whose
discovery was worth to me more than all the round and powerless money
of the world—limbs' tin grace, wooden wink, shoulder-less, unhurried
body, velocity of a grasshopper, soul up under his arm-pits,
mysteriously falling over the ownness of two feet, floating fish of his
slimness half a bird....
Gentlemen, I am inexorably grateful for the gift of these ignorant
and indivisible things.
LET us ascend the third Delectable Mountain, which is called
I will admit, in the beginning, that I never knew Surplice. This for
the simple reason that I am unwilling to know except as a last
resource. And it is by contrast with Harree the Hollander, whom I knew,
and Judas, whom I knew, that I shall be able to give you (perhaps) a
little of Surplice, whom I did not know. For that matter I think
Monsieur Auguste was the only person who might possibly have known him;
and I doubt whether Monsieur Auguste was capable of descending to such
depths in the case of so fine a person as Surplice.
Take a sheer animal of a man. Take the incredible Hollander with
cobalt-blue breeches, shock of orange hair, pasted over forehead, pink
long face, twenty-six years old, had been in all the countries of all
the world: 'Australia girl fine girl—Japanese girl cleanest girl of
the world—Spanish girl all right—English girl no good, no
face—everywhere these things: Norway sailors, German girls, Swedisher
matches, Holland candles'. . . had been to Philadelphia, worked on a
yacht for a millionaire; knew and had worked in the Krupp factories;
was on two boats torpedoed and one which struck a mine when in sight of
shore through the 'looking-glass': 'Holland almost no soldier—India'
(the Dutch Indies) 'nice place; always warm there, I was in cavalry; if
you kill a man or steal one hundred franc or anything, in prison
twenty-four hours; every week black girl sleep with you because
government want white children, black girl fine girl, always doing
something, your finger-nails or clean your cars or make wind because
it's hot.... No one can beat German people; if Kaiser tell man to kill
his father and mother he do it quick!'—the tall, strong, coarse vital
youth who remarked:
'I sleep with black girl who smoke a pipe in the night.'
Take this animal. You hear him, you are afraid of him, you smell and
you see him and you know him—but you do not touch him.
Or a man who makes us thank God for animals, Judas as we called him:
who keeps his moustaches in press during the night (by means of a kind
of transparent frame which is held in place by a band over his head);
who grows the nails of his two little fingers with infinite care; has
two girls with both of whom he flirts carefully and wisely, without
ever once getting into trouble; talks in French; converses in Belgian;
can speak eight languages, and is therefore always useful to Monsieur le Surveillant
—Judas with his shining horrible
forehead, pecked with little indentures; with his Reynard
full-face—Judas with his pale almost putrescent fatty body in the douche—Judas with whom I talked one night about Russia, he
wearing my pelisse—the frightful and impeccable Judas: take
this man. You see him, you smell the hot stale odour of Judas's body;
you are not afraid of him, in fact you hate him; you hear him and you
know him. But you do not touch him.
And now take Surplice, whom I see and hear and smell and touch and
even taste, and whom I do not know.
Take him in dawn's soft squareness, gently stooping to pick chewed
cigarette-ends from the spitty floor ... hear him, all night; retchings
which light into the dark ... see him all day and all days, collecting
his soaked ends and stuffing them gently into his round pipe (when he
can find none he smokes tranquilly little splinters of wood) ... watch
him scratching his back (exactly like a bear) on the wall ... or in the cour,
speaking to no one, sunning his soul....
He is, we think, Polish. Monsieur Auguste is very kind to him,
Monsieur Auguste can understand a few words of his language and thinks
they mean to be Polish. That they are trying hard to be and never can
Everyone else roars at him, Judas refers to him before his face as a
dirty pig, Monsieur Peters cries angrily:
'Il ne faut pas cracher par terre,'
eliciting a humble not to say abject apology; the Belgians spit on
him; the Hollanders chaff him and bulldoze him now and then, crying
'Syph'lis'—at which he corrects them with offended majesty
'Pas syph'lis, Surplice'
causing shouts of laughter from everyone—of nobody can he say My
Friend, of no one has he ever said or will he ever say My Enemy.
'When there is labour to do he works like a dog ... the day we had
nettoyage de chambre,
for instance, and Surplice and The Hat did
most of the work; and B. and I were caught by the planton trying
to stroll out into the cour ... every morning he takes the pail
of solid excrement down, without anyone's suggesting that he take it;
takes it as if it were his, empties it in the sewer just beyond the cour des femmes,
or pours a little (just a little) very delicately
on the garden where Monsieur le Directeur is growing a flower
for his daughter—he has, in fact, an unobstreperous affinity for
excrement; he lives in it; he is shaggy and spotted and blotched with
it; he sleeps in it; he puts it in his pipe and says it is delicious....
And he is intensely religious, religious with a terrible and
exceedingly beautiful and absurd intensity ... every Friday he will be
found sitting on a little kind of stool by his paillasse, reading his prayer-book upside down; turning with enormous delicacy the
thin difficult leaves, smiling to himself as he sees and does not read.
Surplice is actually religious, and so are Garibaldi, and I think The
Woodchuck (a little dark sad man who spits blood with regularity) ; by
which I mean they go to la messe for la messe, whereas everyone else goes
pour voir les femmes.
And I don't
know for certain why The Woodchuck goes, but I think it's because he
feels entirely sure he will die. And Garibaldi is afraid, immensely
afraid. And Surplice goes in order to be surprised, surprised by the
amazing gentleness and delicacy of God—Who put him, Surplice, upon
his knees in La Ferté Macé, knowing that Surplice would appreciate His
He is utterly ignorant. He thinks America is out of a particular
window on your left as you enter The Enormous Room. He cannot
understand the submarine. He does not know that there is a war. On
being informed upon these subjects he is unutterably surprised, he is
inexpressibly astonished. He derives huge pleasure from this
astonishment. His filthy rather proudly noble face radiates the
pleasure he receives upon being informed that people are killing people
for nobody knows what reason, that boats go under water and fire
six-foot-long bullets at ships, that America is not really just outside
this window close to which we are talking, that America is in fact over
the sea. The sea: is that water?—'c'est de l'eau, monsieur?'
Ah: a great quantity of water; enormous amounts of water, water and
then water; water and water and water and water and water. 'Ah! You
cannot see the other side of this water, monsieur? Wonderful,
monsieur!'—He meditates it, smiling quietly; its wonder, how
wonderful it is, no other side, and yet—the sea. In which fish swim.
He is utterly curious. He is utterly hungry. We have bought cheese
with The Zulu's money. Surplice comes up, bows timidly and
ingratiatingly with the demeanour of a million-times whipped but
somewhat proud dog. He smiles. He says nothing, being terribly
embarrassed. To help his embarrassment, we pretend we do not see him.
That makes things better:
'Oui, c'est du fromage.'
his astonishment is supreme.
C'est du fromage.
this. After a little
'Monsieur, c'est bon, monsieur?'
asking the question as if his very life depended on the
answer—'Yes, it is good,' we tell him reassuringly.
He is once more superlatively happy. It is good, le
fromage. Could anything be more superbly amazing? After perhaps a minute:
'Monsieur—monsieur—c'est cher le fromage?'
'Very,' we tell him truthfully. He smiles, blissfully astonished.
Then, with extreme delicacy and the utmost timidity conceivable:
'Monsieur, combien ça coute, monsieur?'
'We tell him. He totters with astonishment and happiness.
Only now, as if we had just conceived the idea, we say carelessly:
He straightens, thrilled from the top of his rather beautiful filthy
head to the soleless slippers with which he promenades in rain and
We cut him a piece. He takes it quiveringly, holds it a second as a
king might hold and contemplate the best and biggest jewel of his
realm, turns with profuse thanks to us—and disappears....
He is perhaps most curious of this pleasantly sounding thing which
everyone around him, everyone who curses and spits upon and bullies
him, desires with a terrible desire—Liberté. When anyone
departs Surplice is in an ecstasy of quiet excitement. The lucky man
may be Fritz; for whom Bathhouse John is taking up a collection as if
he, Fritz, were a Hollander and not a Dane—for whom Bathhouse John is
striding hither and thither, shaking a hat into which we drop coins for
Fritz; Bathhouse John, chipmunk-cheeked, who talks Belgian, French,
English and Dutch in his dreams, who has been two years in La Ferté
(and they say he declined to leave, once, when given the chance), who
cries 'baigneur de femmes, moi,' and every night hoists himself
into his wooden bunk crying 'goo-dni-te'; whose favourite joke is 'une section pour les femmes';
which he shouts occasionally in the
cour as he lifts his paper-soled slippers and stamps in the
freezing mud, chuckling and blowing his nose on the Union Jack and now
Fritz, beaming with joy, shakes hands and thanks us all and says to me,
'Good-bye, Johnny,' and waves and is gone for ever—and behind me I
hear a timid voice:
and I say Yes, feeling that Yes in my belly and in my head at the
same instant; and Surplice stands beside me, quietly marvelling,
extremely happy, uncaring that le parti did not think to say
good-bye to him. Or it may be Harree and Pom-Pom, who are running to
and fro shaking bands with everybody in the wildest state of
excitement, and I hear a voice behind me:
'Liberté, monsieur? Liberté?'
and I say No, Précigné, feeling weirdly depressed, and Surplice is
standing to my left, contemplating the departure of the incorrigibles
with interested disappointment—Surplice of whom no man takes any
notice when that man leaves, be it for Hell or Paradise....
And once a week the
maître de chambre
throws soap on the
and I hear a voice:
'Monsieur, voulez pas?'
and Surplice is asking that we give him our soap to wash with.
Sometimes, when he has made
by washing for
others, he stalks quietly to The Butcher's chair (everyone else who
wants a shave having been served) and receives with shut eyes and a
patient expression the blade of The Butcher's dullest razor—for The
Butcher is not the man to waste a good razor on Surplice; he, The
Butcher as we call him, the successor of the Frog (who one day somehow
managed to disappear like his predecessor The Barber), being a thug and
a burglar fond of telling us pleasantly about German towns and prisons,
prisons where men are not allowed to smoke, clean prisons where there
is a daily medical inspection, where anyone who thinks he has a
grievance of any sort has the right of immediate and direct appeal; he,
The Butcher, being perhaps happiest when he can spend an evening
showing us little parlour-tricks fit for children of four and three
years old; quite at his best when he remarks:
'Sickness doesn't exist in France,' meaning that one is either well
or dead; or
'If they (the French) get an inventor they put him in prison.'
—So The Butcher is stooping heavily upon Surplice and slicing and
gashing busily and carelessly, his thick lips stuck a little pursewise,
his buried pig's eyes glistening—and in a moment he cries 'Fini!' and poor Surplice rises unsteadily, horribly slashed, bleeding from at
least three two-inch cuts and a dozen large scratches; totters over to
his couch holding on to his face as if he were afraid it would fall off
any moment; and lies down gently at full length, sighing with
pleasurable surprise, cogitating the inestimable delights of
It struck me at the time as intensely interesting that, in the case
of a certain type of human being, the more cruel are the miseries
inflicted upon him the more cruel does he become toward anyone who is
so unfortunate as to be weaker or more miserable than himself. Or
perhaps I should say that nearly every human being, given sufficiently
miserable circumstances, will from time to time react to those very
circumstances (whereby his own personality is mutilated) through a
deliberate mutilation on his own part of a weaker or already more
mutilated personality. I daresay that this is perfectly obvious. I do
not pretend to have made a discovery. On the contrary, I merely state
what interested me peculiarly in the course of my sojourn at La Ferté:
I mention that I was extremely moved to find that, however busy sixty
men may be kept suffering in common, there is always one man or two or
three men who can always find time to make certain of their comrades
enjoying a little extra suffering. In the case of Surplice, to be the
butt of everyone's ridicule could not be called precisely suffering;
inasmuch as Surplice, being unspeakably lonely, enjoyed any and all
insults for the simple reason that they constituted or at least implied
a recognition of his existence. To be made a fool of was, to this
otherwise completely neglected individual, a mark of distinction;
something to take pleasure in; to be proud of. The inhabitants of The
Enormous Room had given to Surplice a small but essential part in the
drama of La Misère: he would play that part to the utmost of his
ability; the cap-and-bells should not grace a head unworthy of their
high significance. He would be a great fool, since that was his
function; a supreme entertainer, since his duty was to amuse. After
all, men in La Misère as well as anywhere else rightly demand a
certain amount of amusement; amusement is, indeed, peculiarly essential
to suffering; in proportion as we are able to be amused we are able to
suffer; I, Surplice, am a very necessary creature after all.
I recall one day when Surplice beautifully demonstrated his ability
to play the fool. Someone had crept up behind him as he was stalking to
and fro, head in air proudly, hands in pockets, pipe in teeth, and had
(after several heart-breaking failures) succeeded in attaching to the
back of his jacket by means of a pin a huge placard carefully prepared
beforehand, bearing the numerical inscription in vast writing. The
attacher, having accomplished his difficult feat, crept away. So soon
as he reached his paillasse a volley of shouts went up from all
directions, shouts in which all nationalities joined, shouts or rather
jeers which made the pillars tremble and the windows rattle
'SIX CENT SIX! SYPH'LIS!'
Surplice started from his reverie, removed his pipe from his lips,
drew himself up proudly, and—facing one after another the sides of
The Enormous Room—blustered in his bad and rapid French accent:
'Pas syph'lis! Pas syph'lis!'
at which, rocking with mirth, everyone responded at the top of his
'SIX CENT SIX!'
Whereat, enraged, Surplice made a dash at Pete the Shadow and was
'Get away, you bloody Polak, or I'll give you something you'll be
sorry for'—this from the lips of America Lakes. Cowed, but as
majestic as ever, Surplice attempted to resume his promenade and his
composure together. The din bulged:
'Six cent six! Syph'lis! Six cent six!'
—increasing in volume with every instant. Surplice, beside himself
with rage, rushed another of his fellow-captives (a little old man, who
fled under the table) and elicited threats of:
'Come on now, you Polak hoor, and quit that business or I'll kill
you,' upon which he dug his hands into, the pockets of his almost
transparent pantaloons and marched away in a fury, literally frothing
at the mouth.
'Six cent six!'
everyone cried. Surplice stamped with wrath and mortification.
Monsieur Auguste said gently beside me.
un bon-homme, le pauvre, il ne faut pas l'em-merd-er.'
'Look behind you!' somebody yelled. Surplice wheeled, exactly like a
kitten trying to catch its own tail, and provoked thunders of laughter.
Nor could anything at once more pitiful and ridiculous, more ludicrous
and horrible, be imagined.
'On your coat!' 'Look on your jacket!'
Surplice bent backward, staring over his left then his right
shoulder, pulled at his jacket first one way then the other—thereby
making his improvised tail to wag, which sent The Enormous Room into
spasms of merriment—finally caught sight of the incriminating
appendage, pulled his coat to the left, seized the paper, tore it off,
threw it fiercely down, and stamped on the crumpled 606; spluttering
and blustering and waving his arms; slavvering like a mad dog. Then he
faced the most prominently vociferous corner and muttered thickly and
Then he strode rapidly to his
paillasse and lay down; in
which position I caught him, a few minutes later, smiling and even
chuckling ... very happy ... as only an actor is happy whose efforts
have been greeted with universal applause....
In addition to being called 'Syph'lis' he was popularly known as
the Pole.' If there is anything particularly
terrifying about prisons, or at least imitations of prisons such as La
Ferté, it is possibly the utter obviousness with which (quite unknown
to themselves) the prisoners demonstrate willy-nilly certain
fundamental psychological laws. The case of Surplice is a very
exquisite example: everyone, of course, is afraid of les
maladies vénériennes—-accordingly all pick an individual
(of whose inner life they know and desire to know nothing, whose
external appearance satisfies the requirements of the mind à propos
what is foul and disgusting) and, having tacitly agreed upon this
individual as a Symbol of all that is evil, proceed to heap insults
upon him and enjoy his very natural discomfiture ... but I shall
remember Surplice on his both knees sweeping sacredly together the
spilled sawdust from a spittoon-box knocked over by the heel of the
omnipotent planton; and smiling as he smiled at la
messe when Monsieur le Curé told him that there was always
He told us one day a great and huge story of an important incident
in his life, as follows n:
'Monsieur, réformé moi—oui monsieur-réformé—travaille, beaucoup
de monde, maison, très haute, troisième étage, tout le monde, planches,
en haut—planches pas bonnes—chancelle, tout'—
(here he began to stagger and rotate before us)
tomber—tombe, tombe, tout, tous, vingt-sept
POOM!—tout le monde blessé, tout le monde tué, pas moi, réformé—oui
monsieur'—and he smiled, rubbing his head foolishly. Twenty-seven
men, bricks, planks and wheelbarrows....
Also he told us, one night, in his gentle, crazy, shrugging voice,
that once upon a time he played the fiddle with a big woman in
Alsace-Lorraine for fifty francs a night; 'C'est la misère'
—adding quietly, 'I can play well, I can play anything, I can play n'importe quoi.'
Which I suppose and guess I scarcely believed—until one afternoon
a man brought up a harmonica which he had purchased en ville; and the man tried it; and everyone tried it; and it was perhaps the
cheapest instrument and the poorest that money can buy, even in the
fair country of France; and everyone was disgusted—but, about six
o'clock in the evening, a voice came from behind the last experimenter;
a timid hasty voice:
'Monsieur, monsieur, permettez?'
the last experimenter turned, and to his amazement saw
the Pole, whom everyone had (of course) forgotten
The man tossed the harmonica on the table with a scornful look (a
menacingly scornful look) at the object of universal execration; and
turned his back. Surplice, trembling from the summit of his filthy and
beautiful bead to the naked soles of his filthy and beautiful feet,
covered the harmonica delicately and surely with one shaking paw;
seated himself with a surprisingly deliberate and graceful gesture;
closed his eyes, upon whose lashes there were big filthy tears ...
... and suddenly:
He put the harmonica softly upon the table. He rose. He went quickly
to his paillasse. He neither moved nor spoke nor responded to
the calls for more music, to the cries of 'Bis!'—'Bien
joué!'—'Allez!'—'Va-z-y!' He was crying, quietly and carefully,
to himself ... quietly and carefully crying, not wishing to annoy
anyone.. . hoping that people could not see that Their Fool had
temporarily failed in his part.
The following day he was up as usual before anyone else, hunting for
chewed cigarette-ends on the spitty, slippery floor of The Enormous
Room; ready for insult, ready for ridicule, for buffets, for curses.
One evening, some days after everyone who was fit for
commission had enjoyed the privilege of examination by that
inexorable and delightful body—one evening very late., in fact just
before lumières éteintes, a strange planton arrived in
The Enormous Room and hurriedly read a list of five names, adding:
'Partir demain de bonne heure,'
and shut the door behind him. Surplice was, as usual, very
interested, enormously interested. So were we: for the names
respectively belonged to Monsieur Auguste, Monsieur Pet-airs, The
Wanderer, Surplice, and The Spoonman. These men had been judged. These
men were going to Précigné. These men would be prisonniers pour la
durée de la guerre.
I have already told how Monsieur Pet-airs sat with the frantically
weeping Wanderer writing letters, and sniffing with his big red nose,
and saying from time to time: 'Be a man, Demestre, don't cry, crying
does no good.'—Monsieur Auguste was broken-hearted. We did our best
to cheer him; we gave him a sort of Last Supper at our bedside, we
heated some red wine in, the tin-cup and he drank with us. We presented
him with certain tokens of our love and friendship, including—I
remember—a huge cheese ... and then, before us, trembling with
excitement, stood Surplice—
We asked him to sit down. The onlookers (there were always onlookers
at every function, however personal, which involved Food or Drink)
scowled and laughed. Le con, Surplice, chaude-pisse—how
could he sit with men and gentlemen? Surplice sat down gracefully
and lightly on one of our beds, taking care not to strain the somewhat
capricious mechanism thereof; sat very proudly; erect; modest but
unfearful. We offered him a cup of wine. A kind of huge convulsion
gripped, for an instant, fiercely his entire face: then he said in a
whisper of sheer and unspeakable wonderment, leaning a little toward us
with out in any way suggesting that the question might have an
"Pour moi, monsieur?'
We smiled at him and said,
opened. I have never seen eyes since. He remarked quietly, extending
one hand with majestic delicacy:
... Before he left B. gave him some socks and I presented him with a
flannel shirt, which he took softly and slowly and simply and otherwise
not as an American would take a million dollars.
'I will not forget you,' he said to us, as if in his own country he
were a more than very great king ... and I think I know where that
country is, I think I know this; I, who never knew Surplice, know.
For he has the territory of harmonicas, the acres of flutes, the
meadows of clarinets, the domain of violins. And God says: Why did they
put you in prison? What did you do to the people? 'I made them dance
and they put me in prison. The soot-people hopped; and to twinkle like
sparks on a chimney-back and I made 80 francs every dimanche, and beer and wine, and to eat well.
Maintenant . . . c'est fini....
Et tout de suite' (gesture of cutting himself in two) 'la tête.'
And He says: O you who put the jerk into joys, come up hither. There's
a man up here called Christ who likes the violin.
XI. JEAN LE NÈGRE
ON a certain day, the ringing of the bell and accompanying rush of
men to the window facing the entrance gate was supplemented by an
unparalleled volley of enthusiastic exclamations in all the languages
of La Ferté Macé—provoking in me a certainty that the queen of fair
women had arrived. This certainly thrillingly withered when I heard the
cry: 'Il y a un noir!' Fritz was at the best peep-hole,
resisting successfully the onslaughts of a dozen fellow-prisoners, and
of him I demanded in English, 'Who's come?'—'Oh, a lot of girls,' he
yelled, 'and there's a NIGGER too'—hereupon writhing with laughter.
I attempted to get a look, but in vain; for by this at least two
dozen men were at the peep-hole, fighting and gesticulating and
slapping each other's backs with joy. However, my curiosity was not
long in being answered. I heard on the stairs the sound of mounting
feet, and knew that a couple of plantons would before many
minutes arrive at the door with their new prey. So did everyone else
and from the farthest beds uncouth figures sprang and rushed to the
door, eager for the first glimpse of the nouveau: which was very
significant, as the ordinary procedure on arrival of prisoners was for
everybody to rush to his own bed and stand guard over it.
Even as the
plantons fumbled with the locks I heard the
inimitable, unmistakable divine laugh of a negro. The door opened at
last. Entered a beautiful pillar of black strutting muscle topped with
a tremendous display of the whitest teeth on earth. The muscle bowed
politely in our direction, the grin remarked musically; 'Bo'jour,
tou't'monde'; then came a cascade of laughter. Its effect on the
spectators was instantaneous: they roared and danced with joy. 'Comment vous appelez-vous?'
was fired from the hubbub.—'
J'mappelle Jean, moi,' the muscle rapidly answered with sudden
solemnity, proudly gazing to left and right as if expecting a challenge
to this statement: but when none appeared, it relapsed as suddenly into
laughter—as if hugely amused at itself and everyone else including a
little and tough boy, whom I had not previously noted, although his
entrance had coincided with the muscle's.
Thus into the misère of La Ferté Macé stepped lightly and proudly
Jean Le Nègre.
Of all the fine people in La Ferté, Monsieur Jean ('le noir'
as he was entitled by his enemies) swaggers in my memory as the finest.
Jean's first act was to complete the distribution (begun, he
announced, among the plantons who had escorted him upstairs) of
two pockets full of Cubebs. Right and left he gave them up to the last,
remarking carelessly, 'J'ne veux, moi.'
Après la soupe
(which occurred a few minutes after
le noir's entry) B. and
I and the greater number of prisoners descended to the cour for
our afternoon promenade. The cook spotted us immediately, and desired
us to 'catch water'; which we did, three cartfulls of it, earning our
usual café sucré. On quitting the cuisine after
this delicious repast (which as usual mitigated somewhat the effects
of the swill that was our official nutriment) we entered the cour
. And we noticed at once a well-made figure standing conspicuously by
itself, and poring with extraordinary intentness over the pages of a
London Daily Mail which it was holding upside-down. The reader
was culling choice bits of news of a highly sensational nature, and
exclaiming from time to time—'Est-ce vrai! V'la, le roi
d'Angleterre est malade. Quelque chose!—Comment? La reine aussi? Bon
Dieu! Qu'est-ce que c'est? —Mon père est mort! Merde!—Eh, b'en! La
guerre est fini. Bon.'—It was Jean Le Nègre, playing a little
game with himself to beguile the time.
When we had mounted
à la chambre,
two or three tried to talk
with this extraordinary personage in French; at which he became very
superior and announced: 'J'suis anglais, moi. Parlez anglais.
Comprends pas français, moi.' At this a crowd escorted him over to
B. and me anticipating great deeds in the English language. Jean looked
at us critically and said, 'Vous parlez anglais? Moi
parlez anglais.'—'We are Americans, and speak English,' I
answered.—'Moi anglais,' Jean said. 'Mon père, capitaine de
gendarmerie, Londres. Comprends pas français, moi. SPEE-Kingliss;
—he laughed all over himself.
At this display of English on Jean's part the English-speaking
Hollanders began laughing. 'The son of a bitch is crazy,' one said.
And from that moment B. and I got on famously with Jean.
His mind was a child's. His use of language was sometimes exalted
fibbing, sometimes the purely picturesque. He courted above all the
sound of words, more or less disdaining their meaning. He told us
immediately (in pidgin-French) that he was born without a mother
because his mother died when he was born, that his father was (first)
sixteen (then) sixty years old, that his father gagnait cinq cent
francs par jour (later, par année), that he was born in
London and not in England, that he was in the French army and had never
been in any army.
He did not, however, contradict himself in one statement:
français sont des cochons'—to which we heartily agreed, and which
won him the approval of the Hollanders.
The next day I had my hands full acting as interpreter for
noir qui comprend pas français! I was summoned from the cour to elucidate a great grief which Jean had been unable to
explain to the Gestionnaire. I mounted with a planton to
find Jean in hysterics; speechless; his eyes starting out of his head.
As nearly as I could make out, Jean had had sixty francs when he
arrived, which money he had given to a planton upon his arrival,
the planton having told Jean that he would deposit the money
with the Gestionnaire in Jean's name (Jean could not write). The planton
in question, who looked particularly innocent, denied this
charge upon my explaining Jean's version; while the Gestionnaire puffed and grumbled, disclaiming any connection with the alleged theft
and protesting sonorously that he was hearing about Jean's sixty francs
for the first time. The Gestionnaire shook his thick piggish
finger at the book wherein all financial transactions were to be
found—from the year one to the present year, month, day, hour and
minute (or words to that effect) . 'Mais c'est pas là,' he kept
repeating stupidly. The Surveillant was uh-ahing at a great rate
and attempting to pacify Jean in French. I myself was somewhat fearful
for Jean's sanity and highly indignant at the planton. The
matter ended with the planton's being sent about his business;
simultaneously with Jean's dismissal to the cour, whither I accompanied
him. My best efforts to comfort Jean in this matter were quite futile.
Like a child who has been unjustly punished he was inconsolable. Great
tears welled in his eyes. He kept repeating 'Sees-tee franc -planton
voleur,' and-absolutely like a child who in anguish calls itself by
the name which has been given itself by grown-ups—'steel Jean munee.'
To no avail I called the planton a menteur, a voleur
, a fils de chienne and various other names. Jean felt the wrong
itself too keenly to be interested in my denunciation of the mere agent
through whom injustice had (as it happened) been consummated.
But—again like an inconsolable child who weeps his heart out when
no human comfort avails and wakes the next day without an apparent
trace of the recent grief—Jean Le Nègre, in the course of the next
twenty-four hours, had completely recovered his normal buoyancy of
spirit. The sees-tee franc were gone. A wrong had been done. But that
was yesterday. To-day—
And he wandered up and down, joking, laughing, singing:
'après la guerre fini? ...
In the cour
Jean was the mecca of all female eyes.
Handkerchiefs were waved to him; phrases of the most amorous nature
greeted his every appearance. To all these demonstrations he by no
means turned a deaf ear; on the contrary, Jean was irrevocably vain. He
boasted of having been enormously popular with the girls wherever he
went and of having never disdained their admiration. In Paris one
day— (and thus it happened that we discovered why le gouvernement
français had arrested Jean)—
One afternoon, having
rien à faire,
and being flush (owing to
his success as a thief, of which vocation he made a great deal, adding
as many ciphers to the amounts as fancy dictated) Jean happened to cast
his eyes in a store window where were displayed all possible
appurtenances for the militaire. Vanity was rooted deeply in
Jean's soul. The uniform of an English captain met his eyes. Without a
moment's hesitation he entered the store, bought the entire uniform,
including leather puttees and belt (of the latter purchase he was
especially proud), and departed. The next store contained a display of
medals of all descriptions. It struck Jean at once that a uniform would
be incomplete without medals. He entered this store, bought one of
every decoration—not forgetting the Colonial, nor yet the Belgian
Cross (which on account of its size and colour particularly appealed to
him) —and went to his room. There he adjusted the decorations on the
chest of his blouse, donned the uniform, and sallied importantly forth
to capture Paris.
Everywhere he met with success. He was frantically pursued by women
of all stations from les putains to les princesses. The
police salaamed to him. His arm was wearied with the returning of
innumerable salutes. So far did his medals carry him that, although on
one occasion a gendarme dared to arrest him for beating in the head of
a fellow English officer (who being a mere lieutenant, should not have
objected to Captain Jean's stealing the affections of his lady), the sergent de gendarmerie
before whom Jean was arraigned on a charge
of attempting to kill refused to even hear the evidence, and dismissed
the case with profuse apologies to the heroic Captain. '"Le gouvernement français, Monsieur,
extends to you through me its
profound apology for the insult which your honour has received." Ils
sont des cochons, les français,' said Jean, and laughed throughout
his entire body.
Having had the most blue-blooded ladies of the capital cooing upon
his heroic chest, having completely beaten up with the full support of
the law whosoever of lesser rank attempted to cross his path or refused
him the salute—having had 'great fun' saluting generals on les
grands boulevards and being in turn saluted ('tous les généraux,
tous, salute me, Jean have more medal'), and this state of affairs
having lasted for about three months—Jean began to be very bored ('me très ennuyé).
A fit of temper ('me
this ennui led to a rixe with the police, in consequence of
which (Jean, though outnumbered three to one, having almost killed one
of his assailants) our hero was a second time arrested. This time the
authorities went so far as to ask the heroic captain to what branch of
the English army he was at present attached; to which Jean first
replied, 'Parle pas français, moi,' and immediately after
announced that he was a Lord of the Admiralty, that he had committed
robberies in Paris to the tune of sees-meel-i-own franc, that he was a
son of the Lord Mayor of London by the Queen, that he had lost a leg in
Algeria, and that the French were cochons. All of which
assertions being duly disproved, Jean was remanded to La Ferté for
psychopathic observation and safe keeping on the technical charge of
wearing an English officer's uniform.
Jean's particular girl at La Ferté was 'LOO-Loo. "With Lulu it was
the same as with les princesses in Paris—'me no travaille,
ja MAIS. Les femmes travaillent, geev Jean mun-ee, sees, sees-tee, see-cent francs. jamais travaille, moi.' Lulu smuggled Jean money;
and not for some time did the woman who slept next Lulu miss it. Lulu
also sent Jean a lace embroidered handkerchief, which Jean would
squeeze and press to his lips with a beatific smile of perfect
contentment. The affair with Lulu kept Mexique and Pete the Hollander
busy writing letters; which Jean dictated, rolling his eyes and
scratching his head for words.
At this time Jean was immensely happy. He was continually playing
practical jokes on one of the Hollanders, or Mexique, or the Wanderer,
or in fact anyone of whom he was particularly fond. At intervals
between these demonstrations of irrepressibility (which kept everyone
in a state of laughter) he would stride up and down the filth-sprinkled
floor with his hands in the pockets of his stylish jacket, singing at
the top of his lungs his own version of the famous song of songs:
après la guerre fini,
soldat anglais parti
mademoiselle que je laissai en France
avec des pickaninee. PLENTY!
and laughing till he shook and had to lean against a wall.
B. and Mexique made some dominoes. Jean had not the least idea of
how to play, but when we three had gathered for a game he was always to
be found leaning over our shoulders, completely absorbed, once in a
while offering us sage advice, laughing utterly when some one made a
cinque or a multiple thereof.
One afternoon, in the interval between
la soupe and
promenade, Jean was in especially high spirits. I was lying down on my
collapsible bed when he came up to my end of the room and began showing
off exactly like a child.
This time it was the game of
which Jean was
playing.—'Jamais soldat, moi. Connais toute l'armée française.'
John the Bathman, stretched comfortably in his bunk near me,
grunted. 'Tous,' Jean repeated.—And he stood in front of us;
stiff as a stick in imitation of a French lieutenant with an imaginary
company in front of him. First he would be the lieutenant giving
commands, then he would be the Army executing them. He began with the
manual of arms.
..'then, as he went through the manual holding his imaginary
gun—'htt, htt, htt.'—Then as the officer commending his troops: 'Bon. Très bon. Très bien fait'—laughing with head thrown back
and teeth aglitter at his own success. John Le Baigneur was so
tremendously amused that he gave up sleeping to watch. L'armée drew a crowd of admirers from every side. For at least three-quarters
of an hour this game went on....
Another day Jean, being angry at the weather and having eaten a huge
amount of soupe, began yelling at the top of his voice 'MERDE
à la France,' and laughing heartily. No one paying
especial attention to him, be continued (happy in this new game with
himself) for about fifteen minutes. Then The Sheeney With The Trick
Raincoat (that undersized specimen, clad in feminine-fitting raiment
with flashy shoes), who was by trade a pimp, being about half Jean's
height and a tenth of his physique, strolled up to Jean—who had by
this time got as far as my bed—and, sticking his sallow face as near
Jean's as the neck could reach, said in a solemn voice: 'Il ne faut
pas dire ça.' Jean, astounded, gazed at the intruder for a moment;
then demanded, 'Qui dit ça? Moi? Jean? Jamais, ja-MAIS. MERDE à la
France!' nor would he yield a point, backed up as he was by the
moral support of every one present except the Sheeney—who found
discretion the better part of valour and retired with a few dark
threats; leaving Jean master of the situation and yelling for the
Sheeney's particular delectation: 'MAY-RRR-DE à la France!' more
loudly than ever.
A little after the epic battle with stovepipes between The Young
Pole and Bill the Hollander, the wrecked poêle (which was
patiently waiting to be repaired) furnished Jean with perhaps his most
brilliant inspiration. The final section of pipe (which conducted the
smoke through a hole in the wall to the outer air) remained in place
all by itself, projecting about six feet into the room at a height of
seven or eight feet from the floor. Jean noticed this; got a chair;
mounted on it, and by applying alternately his ear and his mouth to the
end of the pipe created for himself a telephone, with the aid of which
he carried on a conversation with The Wanderer (at that moment visiting
his family on the floor below) to this effect:
—Jean, grasping the pipe and speaking angrily into it, being
evidently nettled at the poor connection—'Hehloh, hello, hello,
hello'—surveying the pipe in consternation—'Merde. Ça
marche pas—trying again with a deep
frown—'heh-LOH!'—tremendously agitated—'HEHLOH!'—a beatific
smile supplanting the frown—'hello Barbu. Est-ce que tu es là?
Qui? Bon!'—evincing tremendous pleasure at having succeeded in
establishing the connection satisfactorily—'Barbu? Est-ce que tu
m'écoutes? Qui? Qu'est-ce que c'est Barbu? Comment? Moi? Qui, MOI?
JEAN? jaMAIS! jamais, jaMAIS, Barbu. —J'ai jamais dit que vous avez
des puces. C'était pas moi, tu sais. JaMAIS, c'était un autre.
Peut-être c'était Mexique—-turning his head in Mexique's direction
and roaring with laughter—'Hello, HEH-LOH. Barbu? Tu sais, Barbu,
j'ai jamais dit ça. Au contraire, Barbu. J'ai dit que
vous avez des totos'—another roar of laughter—'Comment?
C'est pas vrai? Bon. Alors. Qu'est-ce que vous avez, Barbu? Des poux
—OHHHHHHHHH. je comprends. C'est mieux'—shaking with
laughter, then suddenly tremendously serious—'Hellohellohellohello,
HEHLOH!'—addressing the stovepipe—'C'est une mauvaise
machine, ça -speaking into it with the greatest
distinctness—'HEL- L-LOH. Barbu? Liberté, Barbu. Oui. Comment?
C'est ça. Liberté pour tou'l'monde. Quand? Après la soupe. Oui. Liberté
pour tou'l'monde après la soupe!'—to which jest astonishingly
reacted a certain old man known as the West Indian Negro (a stocky,
credulous creature with whom Jean would have nothing to do, and whose
tales of Brooklyn were indeed outclassed by Jean's histoires
d'amour) who leaped rheumatically from his paillasse at the
word 'Liberté' and rushed limpingly hither and thither inquiring
Was it true?—to the enormous and excruciating amusement of The
Enormous Room in general.
After which Jean, exhausted with laughter, descended from the chair
and lay down on his bed to read a letter from Lulu (not knowing a
syllable of it). A little later he came rushing up to my bed in the
most terrific state of excitement, the whites of his eyes gleaming, his
teeth bared, his kinky hair fairly standing on end, and cried:
'You f—- me, me f—- you? Pas bon. You f—- you, me
f—me:—bon. Me f—- me, you f—you!'
and went away capering and shouting with laughter, dancing with
great grace and as great agility and with an imaginary partner the
entire length of the room.
There was another game—a pure child's game—which Jean played. It
was the name game. He amused himself for hours together by lying on his paillasse,
tilting his head back, rolling up his eyes, and crying
in a high quavering voice—'JAW-neeeeeee.' After a repetition or two
of his own name in English, he would demand sharply 'Qui
m'appelle? Mexique? Est-ce que tu m'appelle, Mexique?' and
if Mexique happened to be asleep, Jean would rush over and cry in his
ear shaking him thoroughly—'Est-ce tu m'appelle, toi?' Or it
might be Barbu, or Pete the Hollander, or B. or myself, of whom
he sternly asked the question—which was always followed by quantities
of laughter on Jean's part. He was never perfectly happy unless
exercising his inexhaustible imagination....
Of all Jean's extraordinary selves, the moral one was at once the
most rare and most unreasonable. In the matter of les femmes he
could hardly have been accused by his bitterest enemy of being a
Puritan. Yet the Puritan streak came out one day, in a discussion which
lasted for several hours. Jean, as in the case of France, spoke in
dogma. His contention was very simple: 'La femme qui fume n'est pas
une femme.' He defended it hotly against the attacks of all the
nations represented; in vain did Belgian and Hollander, Russian and
Pole, Spaniard and Alsatian, charge and counter-charge—Jean remained
unshaken. A woman could do anything but smoke—if she smoked she
ceased automatically to be a woman and became something unspeakable. As
Jean was at this time sitting alternately on B.'s bed and mine, and as
the alternations became increasingly frequent as the discussion waxed
hotter, we were not sorry when the planton's shout, 'A la
promenade les hommes!' scattered the opposing warriors. Then up
leaped Jean (who had almost come to blows innumerable times) and rushed
laughing to the door, having already forgotten the whole thing.
Now we come to the story of Jean's undoing, and may the gods which
made Jean Le Nègre give me grace to tell it as it was.
The trouble started with Lulu. One afternoon, shortly after the
telephoning, Jean was sick at heart and couldn't be induced either to
leave his couch or to utter a word.
Every one guessed the reason—Lulu had left for another camp that
morning. The planton told Jean to come down with the rest and
get soupe. No answer. Was Jean sick? 'Oui, me seek.' And
steadfastly he refused to eat, till the disgusted planton gave
it up and locked Jean in alone. When we ascended after la soupe we found Jean as we had left him, stretched on his couch, big tears on
his cheeks. I asked him if I could do anything for him; he shook his
head. We offered him cigarettes—no, he did not wish to smoke. As B.
and I went away we heard him moaning to himself, 'Jawnee no see Loo-Loo
no more.' With the exception of ourselves, the inhabitants of La Ferté
Macé took Jean's desolation as a great joke. Shouts of Lulu! rent the
welkin on all sides. Jean stood it for an hour; then he leaped up,
furious; and demanded (confronting the man from whose lips the cry had
last issued) —'Feeneesh Loo-Loo?" The latter coolly referred him to
the man next to him; he in turn to some one else; and round and round
the room Jean stalked, seeking the offender, followed by louder and
louder shouts of Lulu! and Jawnee! the authors of which (so soon as he
challenged them) denied with innocent faces their guilt and recommended
that Jean look closer next time. At last Jean took to his couch in
utter misery and disgust.—The rest of les hommes descended as
usual for the promenade—not so Jean. He ate nothing for supper. That
evening not a sound issued from his bed.
Next morning he awoke with a broad grin, and to the salutations of
Lulu! replied, laughing heartily at himself, 'Feeneesh LooLoo.' Upon
which the tormentors (finding in him no longer a victim) desisted; and
things resumed their normal course. If an occasional Lulu! upraised
itself, Jean merely laughed, and repeated (with a wave of his arm)
'FEENEESH.' Finished Lulu seemed to be.
But un jour I had remained upstairs during the promenade,
both because I wanted to, write and because the weather was worse than
usual. Ordinarily, no matter how deep the mud in the cour, Jean
and I would trot back and forth, resting from time to time under the
little shelter out of the drizzle, talking of all things under the sun.
I remember on one occasion we were the only ones to brave the rain and
slough—Jean in paper-thin soled slippers (which he had recently
succeeded in drawing from the Gestionnaire) and I in my huge
sabots-hurrying back and forth with the rain pouring on us, and he very
proud. On this day, however, I refused the challenge of the boue.
The promenaders had been singularly noisy, I thought. Now they were
mounting to the room making a truly tremendous racket. No sooner were
the doors opened than in rushed half a dozen frenzied friends, who
began telling me all at once about a terrific thing which my friend the noir
had just done. It seems that The Sheeney With The Trick
Raincoat had pulled at Jean's handkerchief (Lulu's gift in other days)
which Jean wore always conspicuously in his outside breast pocket; that
Jean had taken the Sheeney's head in his two hands, held it steady,
abased his own head, and rammed the helpless Sheeney as a bull would
do—the impact of Jean's head upon the Sheeney's nose causing that
well-known feature to occupy a new position in the neighbourhood of the
right ear. B. corroborated this description, adding the Sheeney's nose
was broken and that everyone was down on Jean for fighting in an
unsportsmanlike way. I found Jean still very angry, and moreover very
hurt because every one was now shunning him. I told him that I
personally was glad of what he'd done; but nothing would cheer him up.
The Sheeney now entered, very terrible to see, having been patched up,
by Monsieur Richard with copious plasters. His nose was not broken, he
said thickly, but only bent. He hinted darkly of trouble in store for
le noir; and received the commiserations of everyone present
except Mexique, The Zulu, B. and me. The Zulu, I remember, pointed to
his own nose (which was not unimportant), then to Jean, then made a moue of excruciating anguish, and winked audibly.
Jean's spirit was broken. The well-nigh unanimous verdict against
him had convinced his minutely sensitive soul that it had done wrong.
He lay quietly, and would say nothing to anyone.
Some time after the soup, about eight o'clock, The Fighting Sheeney
and The Trick Raincoat suddenly set upon Jean Le Nègre à propos
nothing; and began pommelling him cruelly. The conscience-stricken
pillar of beautiful muscle—who could have easily killed both his
assailants at one blow—not only offered no reciprocatory violence but
refused even to defend himself. Unresistingly, wincing with pain, his
arms mechanically raised and his head bent, he was battered frightfully
to the window by his bed, thence into the corner (upsetting the stool
in the pissoir), thence along the wall to the door. As the
punishment increased he cried out like a child: 'Laissez moi
tranquille!'—again and again; and in his voice the insane
element gained rapidly. Finally, shrieking in agony, be rushed to the
nearest window; and while the Sheeneys together pommelled him yelled
for help to the planton beneath.
The unparalleled consternation and applause produced by this
one-sided battle had long since alarmed the authorities. I was still
trying to break through the five-deep ring of spectators—among whom
was The Messenger Boy, who advised me to desist and got a piece of
advice in return—when with a tremendous crash open burst the door,
and in stepped four plantons with drawn revolvers,
looking frightened to death, followed by the Surveillant who
carried a sort of baton and was crying faintly: 'Qu'est-ce que
At the first sound of the door the two Sheeneys had fled, and were
now playing the part of innocent spectators. Jean alone occupied the
stage. His lips were parted. His eyes were enormous. He was panting as
if his heart would break. He still kept his arms raised as if seeing
everywhere before him fresh enemies. Blood spotted here and there the
wonderful chocolate carpet of his skin, and his whole body glistened
with sweat. His shirt was in ribbons over his beautiful muscles.
Seven or eight persons at once began explaining the fight to the
could make nothing out of their accounts and
therefore called aside a trusted older man in order to get his version.
The two retired from the room. The plantons, finding the
expected wolf a lamb, flourished their revolvers about Jean and
threatened him in the insignificant and vile language which plantons use to anyone whom they can bully. Jean kept repeating dully,
'Laissez-moi tranquille. Ils voulaient me tuer.' His chest shook
terribly with vast sobs.
Now the Surveillant
returned and made a speech, to the
effect that he had received independently of each other the stories of
four men, that by all counts le nègre was absolutely to blame,
that le nègre had caused an inexcusable trouble to the
authorities and to his fellow-prisoners by this wholly unjustified
conflict, and that as a punishment the nègre would now suffer
the consequences of his guilt in the cabinot.—Jean had dropped
his arms to his sides. His face was twisted with anguish. He made a
child's gesture, a pitiful hopeless movement with his slender hands.
Sobbing, he protested: 'C'est pas ma faute, monsieur le surveillant!
Ils m'attaquaient! J'ai rien fait! Ils voulaient me tuer! Demandez à
lui!—he pointed to me desperately. Before I could utter a
syllable the Surveillant raised his hand for silence: le
nègre had done wrong. He should be placed in the cabinot.
—Like a flash, with a horrible tearing sob, Jean leaped from the
surrounding plantons and rushed for the coat which lay on his
bed screaming—'AHHHHH—mon couteau!'—'Look out or he'll get
his knife and kill himself!' someone yelled; and the four plantons seized Jean by both arms just as he made a grab for his jacket.
Thwarted in this hope and burning with the ignominy of his situation,
Jean cast his enormous eyes up at the nearest pillar, crying
hysterically: 'Tout le monde me fout au cabinot parce que je suis
noir.'—In a second, by a single movement of his arms, he sent the
four plantons reeling to a distance of ten feet; leaped
at the pillar: seized it in both hands like a Samson, and (gazing for
another second with a smile of absolute beatitude at its length) dashed
his head against it. Once, twice, thrice be smote himself, before the plantons
seized him—and suddenly his whole strength wilted; he
allowed himself to be overpowered by them and stood with bowed head,
tears streaming from his eyes—while the smallest pointed a revolver
at his heart.
This was a little more than the
had counted on.
Now that Jean's might was no more, the bearer of the croix de guerre stepped forward and in a mild placating voice endeavoured to soothe the
victim of his injustice. It was also slightly more than I could stand,
and slamming aside the spectators I shoved myself under his honour's
nose. 'Do you know,' I asked, 'whom you are dealing with in this man? A
child. There are a lot of Jeans where I come from. You heard what he
said? He is black, is he not, and gets no justice from you. You heard
that. I saw the whole affair. He was attacked, he put up no resistance
whatever, he was beaten by two cowards. He is no more to blame than I
am.—The Surveillant was waving his wand and cooing, 'je
comprends, je comprends, c'est malheureux.'—'You're god damn
right it's malheureux,' I said, forgetting my French. 'Quand
même, he has resisted authority.' The Surveillant gently
continued: 'Now, Jean, be quiet, you will be taken to the cabinot. You may as well go quietly and behave yourself like a good boy.'
At this I am sure my eyes started out of my head. All
I could think of to say was:
'Attends, un petit moment.'
To reach my own bed took but a second. In another second I was back,
bearing my great and sacred pelisse. I marched up to Jean. 'Jean,' I
remarked with a smile, 'tu vas au cabinot, mais tu vas revenir tout
de suite. Je sais bien que tu as parfaitement raison. Mets cela'
-and I pushed him gently into my coat. 'Voici mes cigarettes, Jean;
tu peux fumer comme tu veux'—I pulled out all I had, one full paquet jaune
of Marylands and half a dozen loose ones, and
deposited them carefully in the right-hand, pocket of the pelisse
. Then I patted him on the shoulder and gave him the immortal salutation—'Bonne chance, mon ami!'
He straightened proudly. He stalked like a king through the doorway.
The astounded plantons and the embarrassed Surveillant followed, the latter closing the doors behind him. I was left with a
cloud of angry witnesses.
An hour later the doors opened, Jean entered quietly, and the doors
shut. As I lay on my bed I could see him perfectly. He was almost
naked. He laid my pelisse on his mattress, then walked calmly up to a
neighbouring bed and skilfully and unerringly extracted a brush from
under it. Back to his own bed he tiptoed, sat down on it, and began
brushing my coat. He brushed it for a half-hour, speaking to no one,
spoken to by no one. Finally he put the brush back, disposed the
pelisse carefully on his arm, came to my bed, and as carefully laid it
down. Then he took from the right-hand outside pocket a full paquet
jaune and six loose cigarettes, showed them for my approval, and
returned them to their place. 'Merci,' was his sole remark. B.
got Jean to sit down beside him on his bed and we talked for a few
minutes, avoiding the subject of the recent struggle. Then Jean went
back to his own bed and lay down.
It was not till later that we learned the climax—not till le
petit belge avec le bras cassé, le petit balayeur, came hurrying to
our end of the room and sat down with us. He was bursting with
excitement, his well arm jerked and his sick one stumped about and he
seemed incapable of speech. At length words came.
(now that I think of it, I believe some one had told him that all
male children in America are named Jean at their birth) 'j'ai vu
QUELQUE CHOSE! le nègre, vous savez?—il est FORT! Monsieur Jean,
c'est un GÉANT, croyez moi! C'est pas un homme, tu sais?
Je l'ai vu, moi'—and he indicated his eyes.
We pricked our ears.
stuffing a pipe nervously with his tiny thumb
said: 'You saw the fight up here? So did I. The whole of it. Le noir
avait raison. Well, when they took him downstairs, I slipped out
too—Je suis le balayeur, savez-vous? and the balayeur can go where other people can't.'
—I gave him a match, and he thanked me. He struck it on his
trousers with a quick pompous gesture, drew heavily on his squeaky
pipe, and at last shot a minute puff of smoke into the air; then
another, and another. Satisfied, he went on; his good hand grasping the
pipe between its index and second fingers and resting on one little
knee, his legs crossed, his small body hunched forward, wee unshaven
face close to mine—went on in the confidential tone of one who
relates an unbelievable miracle to a couple of intimate friends:
'Monsieur Jean, I followed. They got him to the
door stood open. At this moment les femmes descendaient, it was
their corvée d'eau, vous savez. He saw them, le noir. One of them cried from the stairs, Is a Frenchman stronger than you,
Jean? The plantons were standing around him, the Surveillant was
behind. He took the nearest planton, and tossed him down
the corridor so that he struck against the door at the end of it. He
picked up two more, one in each arm, and threw them away. They fell on
top of the first. The last tried to take hold of Jean, and so Jean took
him by the neck'— (the balayeur strangled himself for our
benefit)—'and that planton knocked down the other three, who
had got on their feet by this time. You should have seen the Surveillant. He had run away and was saying, "Capture him, capture
him." The plantons rushed Jean; all four of them. He caught them
as they came and threw them about. One knocked down the Surveillant. The
and clapped their hands.
The Surveillant called to the plantons to take Jean, but
they wouldn't go near Jean; they said he was a black devil. The women
kidded them. They were so sore. And they could do nothing. Jean was
laughing. His shirt was almost off him. He asked the plantons to
come and take him, please. He asked the Surveillant, too. The
women had set down their pails and were dancing up and down and
yelling. The Directeur came down and sent them flying. The Surveillant
and his plantons
were as helpless as if
they had been children. Monsieur Jean—quelque chose.'
I gave him another match.
'Merci, Monsieur Jean.' He struck
it, drew on his pipe, lowered it, and went on:
'They were helpless, and men. I am little. I have only one arm,
sais. I walked up to Jean and said, "Jean, you know me, I am your
friend." He said, "Yes." I said to the plantons, "Give me that
rope." They gave me the rope that they would have bound him with. He
put out his wrists for me. I tied his hands behind his back. He was
like a lamb. The plantons rushed up and tied his feet together.
Then they tied his hands and feet together. They took the lacings out
of his shoes for fear he would use them to strangle himself. They stood
him up in an angle between two walls in the cabinot. They left
him there for an hour. He was supposed to have been in there all night;
but The Surveillant knew that he would have died, for he was
almost naked, and vous savez, Monsieur Jean, it was cold in
there. And damp. A fully-clothed man would have been dead in the
morning. And he was naked . . . Monsieur Jean—un géant!'
protested to me that Il est fou, le noir. He is always playing
when sensible men try to sleep. The last few hours (which had made of
the fou a géant) made of the scoffer a worshipper. Nor
did 'le bras cassé' ever from that time forth desert his
divinity. If as balayeur he could lay hands on a morceau de
pain or de viande, he bore it as before to our beds; but
Jean was always called over to partake of the forbidden pleasure.
As for Jean, one would hardly have recognized him. It was as if the
child had fled into the deeps of his soul, never to reappear. Day after
day went by, and Jean (instead of courting excitement as before)
cloistered himself in solitude; or at most sought the company of B. and
me and Le Petit Belge for a quiet chat or a cigarette. The
morning after the three fights he did not appear in the cour for
early promenade along with the rest of us (including The Sheeneys). In
vain did les femmes strain their necks and eyes to find the noir qui était plus fort que six français.
And B. and I noticed our
bed-clothing airing upon the windowsills. When we mounted, Jean was
patting and straightening our blankets, and looking for the first time
in his life guilty of some enormous crime. Nothing however had
disappeared. Jean said, 'Me feeks, lits tous les jours.' And
every morning he aired and made our beds for us, and we mounted to find
him smoothing affectionately some final ruffle, obliterating with
enormous solemnity some microscopic crease. We gave him cigarettes when
he asked for them (which was almost never) and offered them when we
knew he had none or when we saw him borrowing from some one else whom
his spirit held in less esteem. Of us he asked no favours. He liked us
When B. went away, Jean was almost as desolate as I.
About a fortnight later, when the grey dirty snowslush hid the black
filthy world which we saw from our windows, and when people lived in
their ill-smelling beds, it came to pass that my particular amis—The
Zulu, Jean, Mexique and I and all the remaining miserables of La Ferté
descended at the decree of Cæsar Augustus to endure our bi-weekly bain. I remember gazing stupidly at Jean's chocolate-coloured
nakedness as it strode to the tub, a rippling texture of muscular
miracle. Tout le monde had baigné (including The Zulu,
who tried to escape at the last minute and was nabbed by the planton whose business it was to count heads and see that none escaped the
ordeal) and now tout le monde was shivering all together
in the ante-room, begging to be allowed to go upstairs and get into
bed—when Le Baigneur, Monsieur Richard's strenuous
successor that is, set up a hue and cry that one serviette was
lacking. The Fencer was sent for. He entered; heard the case; and made
a speech. If the guilty party would immediately return the stolen
towel, he, The Fencer, would guarantee that party pardon; if not,
everyone present should be searched, and the man on whose person the serviette
was found va attraper quinze jours de cabinot.
This eloquence yielding no results, The Fencer exhorted the culprit to
act like a man and render to Cæsar what is Cæsar's. Nothing happened.
Everyone was told to get in single file and make ready to pass out the
door. One after one we were searched; but so general was the curiosity
that as fast as they were inspected the erstwhile bed-enthusiasts,
myself included, gathered on the side-lines to watch their fellows
instead of availing themselves of the opportunity to go upstairs. One
after one we came opposite The Fencer, held up our arms, had our
pockets run through and our clothing felt over from head to heel, and
were exonerated. 'When Cæsar came to Jean, Cæsar's eyes lighted, and
Cæsar's hitherto perfunctory proddings and pokings became inspired and
methodical. Twice he went over Jean's entire body, while Jean, his arms
raised in a bored gesture, his face completely expressionless, suffered
loftily the examination of his person. A third time the desperate
Fencer tried; his hands, starting at Jean's neck, reached the calf of
his leg —and stopped. The hands rolled up Jean's right trouser leg to
the knee. They rolled up the underwear on his leg —and there, placed
perfectly flat to the skin, appeared the missing serviette. As
The Fencer seized it, Jean laughed—the utter laughter of old
days—and the onlookers cackled uproariously, while with a broad smile
The Fencer proclaimed: 'I thought I knew where I should find it.' And
he added, more pleased with himself than anyone had ever seen him
—'Maintenant, vous pouvez tous monter à la chambre.' We mounted,
happy to get back to bed; but none so happy as Jean le Nègre. It was
not that the cabinot threat had failed to materialize—at any
minute a planton might call Jean to his punishment: indeed, this
was what everyone expected. It was that the incident had absolutely
removed that inhibition which (from the day when Jean le noir became Jean
had held the child, which was Jean's soul
and destiny, prisoner. From that instant till the day I left him he was
the old Jean—joking, fibbing, laughing, and always playing—Jean
And I think of Jean Le Nègre . .. you are something to dream over,
Jean; summer and winter (birds and darkness) you go walking into my
head; you are a sudden and chocolate-coloured thing, in your hands you
have a habit of holding six or eight plantons (which you are
about to throw away) and the flesh of your body is like the flesh of a
very deep cigar. Which I am still and always quietly smoking: always
and still I am inhaling its very fragrant and remarkable muscles. But I
doubt if ever I am quite through with you, if ever I will toss you out
of my heart into the sawdust of forgetfulness. Kid, Boy, I'd like to
tell you: la guerrre est finie.
O yes, Jean: I do not forget, I remember Plenty; the snow's coming,
the snow will throw again a very big and gentle shadow into The
Enormous Room and into the eyes of you and me walking always and
wonderfully up and down....
—Boy, Kid, Nigger with the strutting muscles—take me up into
your mind once or twice before I die (you know why: just because the
eyes of me and you will be full of dirt some day). Quickly take me up
into the bright child of your mind, before we both go suddenly all
loose and silly (you know how it will feel). Take me up (carefully; as
if I were a toy) and play carefully with me, once or twice, before I
and you go suddenly all limp and foolish. Once or twice before you go
into great Jack roses and ivory— (once or twice Boy before we
together go wonderfully down into the Big Dirt laughing, bumped with
the last darkness).
XII. THREE WISE MEN
IT must have been late in November when
arrived. La commission,
as I have said, visited La Fertié
tous les trois mois.
That is to say B. and I (by arriving when we
did) had just escaped its clutches. I consider this one of the luckiest
things in my life.
arrived one morning, and began work immediately.
A list was made of
who were to pass
commission, another of les femmes. These lists were given
to the planton with The Wooden Hand. In order to avert any
delay, those of les hommes whose names fell in the first half of
the list were not allowed to enjoy the usual, stimulating activities
afforded by La Ferté's supreme environment: they were, in fact,
confined to The Enormous. Room, subject to instant call—moreover they
were not called one by one, or as their respective turns came, but in
groups of three or four; the idea being that la commission should suffer no smallest annoyance which might be occasioned by loss
of time. There were always, in other words, eight or ten men waiting in
the upper corridor opposite a disagreeably crisp door, which door
belonged to that mysterious room wherein la commission transacted its inestimable affairs. Not more than a couple of yards
away ten or eight women waited their turns. Conversation between les
hommes and les femmes had been forbidden in the fiercest
terms by Monsieur le Directeur: nevertheless conversation
spasmodically occurred, thanks to the indulgent nature of The Wooden
Hand. The Wooden Hand must have been cuckoo—he looked it. If he
wasn't I am totally at a loss to account for his indulgence.
B. and I spent a morning in The Enormous Room without results, an
astonishing acquisition of nervousness excepted. 'Après la
soupe (noon) we were conducted en haut, told to leave our
spoons and bread (which we did) and—in company with several others
whose names were within a furlong of the last man called—were
descended to the corridor. All that afternoon we waited. Also we waited
all next morning. We spent our time talking quietly with a buxom,
pink-cheeked Belgian girl who was in attendance as translator for one
of les femmes. This Belgian told us that she was a permanent
inhabitant of La Ferté, that she and another femme honnête occupied a room by themselves, that her brothers were at the front in
Belgium, that her ability to speak fluently several languages
(including English and German) made her invaluable to Messieurs la
commission, that she had committed no crime, that she was held as a suspecte,
that she was not entirely unhappy. She struck me
immediately as being not only intelligent but alive. She questioned us
in excellent English as to our offences, and seemed much pleased to
discover that we were—to all appearances—innocent of wrong-doing.
From time to time our subdued conversation was interrupted by
admonitions from the amiable Wooden Hand. Twice the door SLAMMED open,
and Monsieur le Directeur bounced out frothing at the mouth and
threatening everyone with infinite cabinot, on the ground that
everyone's deportment or lack of it was menacing the aplomb of the
commissioners. Each time The Black Holster appeared in the background
and carried on his master's bullying until everyone was completely
terrified—after which we were left to ourselves and The Wooden Hand
B. and I were allowed by the latter individual—he was that day, at
least, an individual and not merely a planton —-to peek over
his shoulder at the men's list. The Wooden Hand even went so far as to
escort our seditious minds to the nearness of their examination by the
simple yet efficient method of placing one of his human fingers
opposite the name of him who was (even at that moment) within,
submitting to the inexorable justice of le gouvernement français. I cannot honestly say that the discovery of this proximity of
ourselves to our respective fates wholly pleased us; yet we were so
weary of waiting that it certainly did not wholly terrify us. All in
all, I think I have never been so utterly un-at-ease as while waiting
for the axe to fall, metaphorically speaking, upon our squawking heads.
We were still conversing with the Belgian girl when a man came out
of the door unsteadily, looking as if he had submitted to several
strenuous fittings of a wooden leg upon a stump not quite healed. The
Wooden Hand, nodding at B., remarked hurriedly in a low voice:
And B. (smiling at
La Belge and at me) entered. He was
followed by The Wooden Hand, as I suppose for greater security.
The next twenty minutes or whatever it was were by far the most
nerve-racking which I had as yet experienced. La Belge said to
'Il est gentil, votre ami,'
and I agreed. And my blood was bombarding the roots of my toes and
the summits of my hair.
After (I need not say) two or three million æons, B. emerged. I had
not time to exchange a look with him—let alone a word—for The
Wooden Hand said from the doorway:
'Allez, l'autre américain,'
and I entered in more confusion than can easily be imagined; entered
the torture chamber, entered the inquisition, entered the tentacles of
that sly and beaming polyp, le gouvernement français....
As I entered I said, half-aloud: The thing is this, to look 'em in
the eyes and keep cool whatever happens, not for the fraction of a
moment forgetting that they are made of merde, that they are all
of them composed entirely of merde—-I don't know how many
inquisitors I expected to see; but I guess I was ready for at least
fifteen, among them President Poincaré lui-même. I hummed noiselessly:
'si vous passez par ma vil-le
n'oubliez pas ma maison:
on y mange de bonne sou-pe Ton Ton Tay-ne;
faite de merde et des onions, Ton Ton Tayne Ton Ton Ton,'
remembering the fine
forgeron of Chevancourt who used to sing
this, or something very like it, upon a table.—Entirely for the
benefit of les deux américains, who would subsequently render
'Eats A lonje wae to Tee-pear-raeree,' wholly for the gratification of
a roomful of what Mr. A. liked to call 'them bastards,' alias 'dirty'
Frenchmen., alias les poilus, les poilus divins....
A little room. The
office? Or the
Comfort. O yes, very, very comfortable. On my right
a table. At the table three persons. Reminds me of Noyon a bit, not
unpleasantly of course. Three persons, reading from left to right as I
face them—a soggy, sleepy, slumpy lump in a gendarme's cape and cap,
quite old, captain of gendarmes, not at all interested, wrinkled coarse
face, only semi-méchant, large hard clumsy hands
floppingly disposed on table; wily, tidy man in civilian clothes, pen
in hand, obviously lawyer, avocat type, little bald on top,
sneaky civility, smells of bad perfume or at any rate sweetish soap;
tiny red-headed person, also civilian, creased, worrying, excited face,
amusing little body and hands, brief and jumpy, must be a Dickens
character, ought to spend his time sailing kites of his own
construction over other people's houses in gusty weather. Behind the
Three, all tied up with deference and inferiority, mild and spineless,
'Would the reader like to know what I was asked?
Ah, would I could say! Only dimly do I remember those moments—only
dimly do I remember looking through the lawyer at Apollyon's clean
collar—only dimly do I remember the gradual collapse of the capitaine de gendarmerie,
his slow but sure assumption of
sleepfulness, the drooping of his soggy tête de cochon lower and
lower till it encountered one hand whose elbow, braced firmly upon the
table, sustained its insensate limpness—only dimly do I remember the
enthusiastic antics of the little red-head when I spoke with patriotic
fervour of the wrongs which La France was doing mon ami et moi—
only dimly do I remember, to my right, the immobility of The Wooden
Hand, reminding one of a clothing— dummy, or a life-size doll which
might be made to move only by him who knew the proper combination ....
At the outset I was asked: Did I want a translator? I looked and saw
the secrétaire, weak-eyed and lemon-pale, and I said 'Non.' I
was questioned mostly by the avocat, somewhat by the Dickens,
never by either the captain (who was asleep) or The Directeur (who was timid in the presence of these great and good delegates of
hope, faith, and charity per the French Government). I recall that, for
some reason, I was perfectly cool. I put over six or eight hot shots
without losing in the least this composure, which surprised myself and
pleased myself and altogether increased myself. As the questions came
for me I met them half-way, spouting my best or worst French in a
manner which positively astonished the tiny red-headed demigod. I
challenged with my eyes and with my voice and with my manner Apollyon
Himself, and Apollyon Himself merely cuddled together, depressing his
hairy body between its limbs as a spider sometimes does in the presence
of danger. I expressed immense gratitude to my captors and to le
gouvernement français for allowing me to see and hear and taste and
smell and touch the things which inhabited La Ferté Macé, Orne, France.
I do not think that la commission enjoyed me much. It told me,
through its sweetish-soap-leader, that my friend was a criminal—this
immediately upon my entering—and I told it with a great deal of
well-chosen politeness that I disagreed. In telling how and why I
disagreed I think I managed to shove my shovel-shaped imagination under
the refuse of their intellects. At least once or twice.
Rather fatiguing—to stand up and be told: Your friend is no good;
have you anything to say for yourself ?—And to say a great deal for
yourself and for your friend and for les hommes—or try
your best to—and be contradicted, and be told 'Never mind that, what
we wish to know is,' and instructed to keep to the subject; et cetera,
ad infinitum. At last they asked each other if each other wanted to ask
the man before each other anything more, and each other not wanting to
do so, they said:
As at Noyon, I had made an indisputably favourable impression upon
exactly one of my three examiners. I refer, in the present case, to the
red-headed little gentleman who was rather decent to me. I do not
exactly salute him in recognition of this decency; I bow to him, as I
might bow to somebody who said he was sorry he couldn't give me a match
but there was a cigar-store just around the corner you know.
At 'C'est fini,'
leaped into the
lime-light with a savage admonition to The Wooden Hand-who saluted,
opened the door suddenly, and looked at me with (dare I say it?)
admiration. Instead of availing myself of this means of escape I turned
to the little kite-flying gentleman and said:
'If you please, sir, will you be so good as to tell me what will
become of my friend?'
The little kite-flying gentleman did not have time to reply, for the
perfumed presence stated drily and distinctly:
'We cannot say anything to you upon that point.'
I gave him a pleasant smile which said, If I could see your
intestines very slowly embracing a large wooden drum rotated by means
of a small iron crank turned gently and softly by myself, I should be
extraordinarily happy —and I bowed softly and gently to Monsieur
le Directeur and I went through the door using all the
perpendicular inches which God had given me.
Once outside I began to tremble like a
l'automne . . . 'L'automne humide et monotone.'
—'Allez en bas, pour la soupe,' The Wooden Hand said not unkindly.
I looked about me. 'There will be no more men before the commission
until to-morrow,' The Wooden Hand said. 'Go get your dinner in the
Afrique was all curiosity—what did they say? what did I say?—as
he placed before me a huge, a perfectly huge, an inexcusably huge plate
of something more than lukewarm grease.... B. and I ate at a very
little table in la cuisine, excitedly comparing notes as we
swallowed the red-hot stuff. . . . 'Du Pain; Prenez, mes amis,' Afrique said.
'Mangez comme vous voulez,`
the Cook quoth
benignantly, with a glance at us over his placid shoulder. . . Eat we
most surely did. We could have eaten the French Government.
The morning of the following day we went on promenade once more. It
was neither pleasant nor unpleasant to promenade in the cour
while somebody else was suffering in the Room of Sorrow. It was, in
fact, rather thrilling.
The afternoon of this day we were all up in The Enormous Room when
suddenly entered with Apollyon strutting and lisping
behind it, explaining, and poohpoohing, and graciously waving his thick
Everyone in The Enormous Room leaped to his feet, removing as he did
so his hat—with the exception of les deux américains, who
kept theirs on, and The Zulu, who couldn't find his hat and had been
trying for some time to stalk it to its lair. La commission reacted interestingly to The Enormous Room: the captain of gendarmes
looked soggily around and saw nothing with a good deal of contempt; the
scented soap squinted up his face and said 'Faugh' or whatever a French
bourgeois avocat says in the presence of a bad smell (la
commission was standing by the door and consequently close to the cabinet);
but the little red-head kite-flying gentleman
looked actually horrified.
'Is there in the room anyone of Austrian nationality?'
The Silent Man stepped forward quietly.
'Why are you here?'
'I don't know,' The Silent Man said, with tears in his eyes.
'NONSENSE! You're here for a very good reason and you know what it
is and you could tell it if you wished, you imbecile, you incorrigible,
you criminal,' Apollyon shouted; then, turning to the avocat and the
red-headed little gentleman, 'He is a dangerous alien, he admits it, he
has admitted it—DON'T YOU ADMIT IT, EH? EH?' he roared at The Silent
Man, who fingered his black cap without raising his eyes or changing in
the least the simple and supreme dignity of his poise. 'He is
incorrigible,' said (in a low snarl) The Directeur. 'Let us go,
gentlemen, when you have seen enough.' But the red-headed man, as I
recollect, was contemplating the floor by the door, where six pails of
urine solemnly stood, three of them having overflowed slightly from
time to time upon the reeking planks.. . . And The Directeur was
told that les hommes should have a tin trough to
urinate into, for the sake of sanitation; and that this trough should
be immediately installed, installed without delay—-'O yes indeed,
sirs,' Apollyon simpered, 'a very good suggestion; it shall be done
immediately; yes indeed. Do let me show you the—it's just outside
'and he bowed them out with no little skill. And the door SLAMMED
behind Apollyon and the Three Wise Men.
This, as I say, must have occurred toward the last of November.
For a week we waited.
Jan had already left us. Fritz, having waited months for a letter
from the Danish consul in reply to the letters which he, Fritz, wrote
every so often and sent through le bureau—meaning the secrétaire
—had managed to get news of his whereabouts to said consul by
unlawful means; and was immediately, upon reception of this news by the
consul, set free and invited to join a ship at the nearest port. His
departure (than which a more joyous I have never witnessed) has been
already mentioned in connection with the third Delectable Mountain, as
has been the departure for Précigné of Pompom and Harree ensemble. Bill
the Hollander, Monsieur Pet-airs, Mexique, The Wanderer, The little
Machine-Fixer, Pete, Jean le Nègre, The Zulu and Monsieur Auguste
(second time) were some of our remaining friends who passed the
commission with us. Along with ourselves and these fine people were
judged gentlemen like The Trick Raincoat and The Fighting Sheeney. One
would think, possibly, that justice—in the guise of the Three Wise
Men—would have decreed different fates, to (say) The Wanderer and The
Fighting Sheeney. Au contraire. As I have
previously remarked,. the ways of God and of the good and great French
Government are alike inscrutable.
Bill the Hollander, whom we had grown to like whereas at first we
were inclined to fear him, Bill the Hollander who washed some towels
and handkerchiefs and what-nots for us and turned them a bright pink,
Bill the Hollander who had tried so hard to teach the Young Pole the
lesson which he could only learn from The Fighting Sheeney, left us
about a week after la commission. As I understand it, they
decided to send him back to Holland under guard in order that he might
be jailed in his native land as a deserter. It is beautiful to consider
the unselfishness of le gouvernement français in this case. Much
as le gouvernement français would have liked to have punished
Bill on its own account and for its own enjoyment, it gave him
up—with a Christian smile—to the punishing clutches of a sister or
brother government: without a murmur denying itself the incense of his
sufferings and the music of .his sorrows. Then too it is really
inspiring to note the perfect collaboration of la justice française
and la justice hollandaise
in a critical moment of
the world's history. Bill certainly should feel that it was a great
honour to be allowed to exemplify this wonderful accord, this exquisite
mutual understanding, between the punitive departments of two nations
superficially somewhat unrelated—that is, as regards customs and
language. I fear Bill didn't appreciate the intrinsic usefulness of his
destiny. I seem to remember that he left in a rather Gottverdummerish
condition. Such is ignorance.
Poor Monsieur Pet-airs came out of the commission looking
extraordinarily épaté. Questioned, he averred that his penchant
for inventing force-pumps had prejudiced ces messieurs in his
disfavour; and shook his poor old head and sniffed hopelessly. Mexique
exited in a placidly cheerful condition, shrugging his shoulders and
"I no do nut'ing. Dese fellers tell me wait few days, after you go
free,' whereas Pete looked white and determined and said little except
in Dutch to The Young Skipper and his mate; which pair took la
commission more or less as a healthy bull-calf takes nourishment:
there was little doubt that they would refind la liberté in a
short while, judging from the inability of the Three Wise Men to prove
them even suspicious characters. The Zulu uttered a few inscrutable
gestures made entirely of silence and said he would like us to
celebrate the accomplishment of this ordeal by buying ourselves and
himself a good fat cheese apiece—his friend The Young Pole looked as
if said ordeal had scared the life out of him temporarily; he was
unable to say whether or no he and 'mon ami' would leave us: la commission
had adopted, in the case of these twain, an
awe-inspiring taciturnity. Jean le Nègre, who was one of the last to
pass, had had a tremendously exciting time, due to the fact that le
gouvernement français' polished tools had failed to scratch his
mystery either in French or English—he came dancing and singing
toward us; then, suddenly suppressing every vestige of emotion,
solemnly extended for our approval a small scrap of paper on which was
remarking: 'Qu'est-ce que ça veut
dire?'—and when we read
the word for him, 'm'en vais à Calais, moi, travailler à Calais,
très bon!'—-with a jump and a shout of laughter pocketing the
scrap and beginning the Song of Songs:
guerre fini. . . .'
A trio which had been hit and hard hit by the Three Wise Men were or
was The Wanderer and The Machine-Fixer and Monsieur Auguste—the
former having been insulted in respect to Chocolat's mother (who also
occupied the witness-stand) and having retaliated, as nearly as we
could discover, with a few remarks straight from the shoulder à propos
justice (O Wanderer, did you expect honour among the honourable?); The
Machine-Fixer having been told to shut up in the midst of a passionate
plea for mercy, or at least fair-play, if not in his own case in the
case of the wife who was crazed by his absence; Monsieur Auguste having
been asked (as he had been asked three months before by the honourable
commissioners), 'Why did you not return to Russia with your wife and
your child at the outbreak of the war?—and having replied, with tears
in his eyes and that gentle ferocity of which he was occasionally
'Par-ce-que je n'en a-vais pas les moy-ens. je ne suis pas un
The Baby-Snatcher, The Trick Raincoat, The Messenger Boy, The
Fighting Sheeney and similar gentry passed the commission without the
slightest apparent effect upon their disagreeable personalities.
It was not long after Bill the Hollander's departure that we lost
two Delectable Mountains in The Wanderer and Surplice. Remained The
Zulu and Jean le Nègre.... B. and I spent most of our time when on
promenade collecting rather beautifully hued leaves in la cour. These leaves we inserted in one of my note-books, along with all the
colours which we could find on cigarette-boxes, chocolate-wrappers,
labels of various sorts and even postage-stamps. (We got a very
brilliant red from a certain piece of cloth.) Our efforts puzzled
everyone (including the plantons) more than considerably; which
was natural, considering that everyone did not know that by this
exceedingly simple means we were effecting, a study of colour itself,
in relation to what is popularly called 'abstract' and sometimes
'non-representative' painting. Despite their natural puzzlement
everyone (plantons excepted) was extraordinarily kind and
brought us often valuable additions to our chromatic collection. Had I,
at this moment and in the city of New York, the complete confidence of
one-twentieth as many human beings I should not be so inclined to
consider The Great American Public as the most æsthetically incapable
organization ever created for the purpose of perpetuating defunct
ideals and ideas. But of course The Great American Public has a
handicap which my friends at La Ferté did not as a rule
have—education. Let no one sound his indignant yawp at this. I refer
to the fact that, for an educated gent or lady, to create is first of
all to destroy—that there is and can be no such thing as authentic
art until the bons trucs (whereby we are taught to see and
imitate on canvas and in stone and by words this so-called world) are
entirely and thoroughly and perfectly annihilated by that vast and
painful process of Un thinking which may result in a minute bit of
purely personal Feeling. Which minute bit is Art.
Ah well, the revolution—I refer of course to the intelligent
revolution—is on the way; is perhaps nearer than some think, is
possibly knocking at the front doors of The Great Mister Harold Bell
Wright and The Great Little Miss Polyanna. In the course of the next
ten thousand years it may be possible to find Delectable Mountains
without going to prison—captivity I mean, Monsieur Le
Surveillant—it may be possible, I dare say, to encounter
Delectable Mountains who are not in prison....
The Autumn wore on.
Rain did, from time to time, not fall: from time to time a sort of
unhealthy almost-light leaked from the large uncrisp corpse of the sky,
returning for a moment to our view the ruined landscape. From time to
time the eye, travelling carefully with a certain disagreeable suddenly
fear no longer distances of air, coldish and sweet, stopped upon the
incredible nearness of the desolate without-motion autumn. Awkward and
solemn clearness, making louder the unnecessary cries, the hoarse
laughter, of the invisible harlots in their muddy yard, pointing a cool
actual finger at the silly and ferocious group of man-shaped beings
huddled in the mud under four or five little trees, came strangely in
my own mind pleasantly to suggest the ludicrous and hideous and
beautiful antics of the insane. Frequently I would discover so perfect
a command over myself as to easily reduce la promenade to a
recently invented mechanism; or to the demonstration of a collection of
vivid and unlovely toys around and around which, guarding them with
impossible heroism, funnily moved purely unreal plantons, always
absurdly marching, the maimed and stupid dolls of my imagination. Once
I was sitting alone on the long beam of silent iron and suddenly had
the gradual complete unique experience of death....
It became amazingly cold.
One evening B. and myself and, I think it was, The Machine-Fixer,
were partaking of the warmth of a bougie hard by and in fact
between our ambulance beds, when the door opened, a planton entered, and a list of names (none of which we recognized) was
hurriedly read off with (as in the case of the last partis including The Wanderer and Surplice) the admonition:
"Soyez prêts partir demain matin de bonne heure'
—and the door shut loudly and quickly. Now one of the names which
had been called sounded somewhat like 'Broom,' and a strange inquietude
seized us on this account. Could it possibly have been 'Brown'? We made
inquiries of certain of our friends who had been nearer the planton than ourselves. 'We were told that Pete and The Trick Raincoat and The
Fighting Sheeney and Rockyfeller were leaving—about 'Brown' nobody
was able to enlighten us. Not that opinions in this matter were
lacking. There were plenty of opinions—but they contradicted each
other to a painful extent. Les hommes were in fact about equally
divided; half considering that the occult sound had been intended for
'Brown,' half that the somewhat asthmatic planton had
unwittingly uttered a spontaneous grunt or sigh, which sigh or grunt we
had mistaken for a proper noun. Our uncertainty was augmented by the
confusion emanating from a particular corner of The Enormous Room, in
which corner The Fighting Sheeney was haranguing a group of spectators
on the pregnant topic: What I won't do to Précigné when I get there. In
deep converse with Bathhouse John we beheld the very same youth who,
some time since, had drifted to a place beside me at la soupe
—Pete the Ghost, white and determined, blonde and fragile: Pete the
I forget who, but someone—I think it was the little
Machine-Fixer—established the truth that an American was to leave the
next morning. That, moreover, said American's name was Brun.
Whereupon B. and I became extraordinarily busy.
The Zulu and Jean le Nègre, upon learning that B. was among the
partis, came over to our beds and sat down without uttering a word.
The former, through a certain shy orchestration of silence, conveyed
effortlessly and perfectly his sorrow at the departure; the latter, by
his bowed head and a certain very delicate restraint manifested in the
wholly exquisite poise of his firm alert body, uttered at least a
universe of grief.
The little Machine-Fixer was extremely indignant; not only that his
friend was going to a den of thieves and ruffians, but that his friend
was leaving in such company as that of cette crapule (meaning
Rockyfeller) and les deux mangeurs de blanc (to wit, The Trick
Raincoat and The Fighting Sheeney). 'C'est malheureux' he
repeated over and over, wagging his poor little head in rage and
despair —'it's no place for a young man who has done no wrong, to be
shut up with pimps and cut-throats, pour la durée de la guerre: le
gouvernement français a bien fait!' and he brushed a tear out of
his eye with a desperate rapid little gesture.... But what angered The
Machine-Fixer was that B. and I were about to be separated
(touching me gently on the knee), 'they have no hearts,
commission; they are not simply unjust, they are cruel, savez-vous? Men are not like these; they are not men, they are Name
of God I don't know what, they are worse than the animals; and they
pretend to Justice' (shivering from top to toe with an indescribable
sneer) 'Justice! My God, Justice!'
All of which, somehow or other, did not exactly cheer us.
And, the packing completed, we drank together for The Last Time. The
Zulu and Jean le Nègre and The Machine-Fixer and B. and I—and Pete
the Shadow drifted over, whiter than I think I ever saw him, and said
simply to me:
'I'll take care o' your friend, Johnny,'
... and then at last it was
deux américains lay in their beds in the cold rotten darkness,
talking in low voices of the past, of Pétrouchka, of Paris, of that
brilliant and extraordinary and impossible something: Life.
Morning. Whitish. Inevitable. Deathly cold.
There was a great deal of hurry and bustle in The Enormous Room.
People were rushing hither and thither in the heavy half-darkness.
People were saying good-bye to people. Saying good-bye to friends.
Saying good-bye to themselves. We lay and sipped the black, evil, dull,
certainly not coffee; lay on our beds, dressed, shuddering with cold,
waiting. Waiting. Several of les hommes whom we scarcely knew
came up to B. and shook hands with him and said good luck and good-bye.
The darkness was going rapidly out of the dull, black, evil, stinking
air. B. suddenly realized that he had no gift for The Zulu; he asked a
fine Norwegian to whom he had given his leather belt if he, The
Norwegian, would mind giving it back, because there was a very dear
friend who had been forgotten. The Norwegian, with a pleasant smile,
took off the belt and said 'Certainly'.. . he had been arrested at
Bordeaux, where he came ashore from his ship, for stealing three cans
of sardines when he was drunk ... a very great and dangerous criminal
... he said 'Certainly' and gave B. a pleasant smile, the pleasantest
smile in the world. B. wrote his own address and name in the inside of
the belt, explained in French to The Young Pole that any time The Zulu
wanted to reach him all he had to do was to consult the belt; The Young
Pole translated; The Zulu nodded; the Norwegian smiled appreciatively;
The Zulu received the belt with a gesture to which words cannot do the
was standing in The Enormous Room, a
planton roaring and cursing and crying
'Dépêchez-vous, ceux qui vont
partir.'—-B. shook hands with Jean and Mexique and The
Machine-Fixer and The Young Skipper, and Bathhouse John (to whom he had
given his ambulance tunic, and who was crazy-proud in consequence), and
The Norwegian and The Washing-Machine Man and The Hat, and many of les hommes
whom we scarcely knew.—The Black Holster was roaring:
'Allez, nom de dieu, l'américain!'
I went down the room with B. and Pete, and shook hands with both at
the door. The other partis, alias The Trick Raincoat and The
Fighting Sheeney, were already on the way downstairs. The Black Holster
cursed us and me in particular and slammed the door angrily in my face
Through the little peephole I caught a glimpse of them, entering the
street. I went to my bed and lay down quietly in my great pelisse
. The clamour and filth. of the room brightened and became distant and
faded. I heard the voice of the jolly Alsatian saying:
'Courage, mon ami, votre camarade n'est pas mort; vous le verrez
and after that, nothing. In front of and on and within my eyes
lived suddenly a violent and gentle and dark silence.
The Three Wise Men had done their work. But wisdom cannot rest....
Probably at that very moment they were holding their court in
another La Ferté committing to incomparable anguish some few merely
perfectly wretched criminals: little and tall, tremulous and brave all
of them white and speechless, all of them with tight bluish lips and
large whispering eyes, all of them with fingers weary and mutilated and
extraordinarily old ... desperate fingers; closing, to feel the final
lukewarm fragment of life glide neatly and softly into forgetfulness.
XIII. I SAY GOOD-BYE TO LA MISÈRE
To convince the reader that this history is mere fiction (and rather
vulgarly violent fiction at that) nothing perhaps is needed save that
ancient standby of sob-story writers and thrill-artists alike—the
Happy Ending. As a matter of fact, it makes not the smallest difference
to me whether anyone who has thus far participated in my travels does
or does not believe that they and I are (as that mysterious animal 'the
public' would say) 'real.' I do however very strenuously object to the
assumption, on the part of anyone, that the heading of this my final
chapter stands for anything in the nature of happiness. In the course
of recalling (in God knows a rather clumsy and perfectly inadequate
way) what happened to me between the latter part of August 1917 and the
first day of January 1918, 1 have proved to my own satisfaction (if not
to anyone else's) that I was happier in La Ferté Macé, with The
Delectable Mountains about me, than the very keenest words can pretend
to express. I dare say it all comes down to a definition of happiness.
And a definition of happiness I most certainly do not intend to
attempt; but I can and will say this: to leave La Misère with
the knowledge, and worse than that the feeling, that some of the finest
people in the world are doomed to remain prisoners thereof for no one
knows how long—are doomed to continue, possibly for years and tens of
years and all the years which terribly are between them and their
deaths, the grey and indivisible Non-existence which without apology
you are quitting for Reality—cannot by any stretch of the imagination
be conceived as constituting a Happy Ending to a great and personal
adventure. That I write this chapter at all is due, purely and simply,
to the I dare say unjustified hope on my part that—by recording
certain events—it may hurl a little additional light into a very
At the outset let me state that what occurred subsequent to the
departure for Précigné of B. and Pete and The Sheeneys and Rockyfeller
is shrouded in a rather ridiculous indistinctness; due, I have to
admit, to the depression which this departure inflicted upon my
altogether too human nature. The judgment of the Three Wise Men
had—to use a peculiarly vigorous (not to say vital) expression of my
own day and time—knocked me for a loop. I spent the days intervening
between the separation from 'votre camarade' and my somewhat
supernatural departure for freedom in attempting to partially
straighten myself. 'When finally I made my exit, the part of me
popularly referred to as 'mind' was still in a slightly bent if not
twisted condition. Not until some weeks of American diet had
revolutionized my exterior did my interior completely resume the
contours of normality. I am particularly neither ashamed nor proud of
this (one might nearly say) mental catastrophe. No more ashamed or
proud, in fact, than of the infection of three fingers which I carried
to America as a little token of La Ferté's good-will. In the latter
case I certainly have no right to boast, even should I find myself so
inclined; for B. took with him to Précigné a case of what his father,
upon B.'s arrival in The Home of The Brave, diagnosed as scurvy—which
scurvy made my mutilations look like thirty cents or even less. One of
my vividest memories of La Ferté consists in a succession of crackling
noises associated with the disrobing of my friend. I recall that we
appealed to Monsieur Ree-chard together, B. in behalf of his scurvy and
I in behalf of my hand plus a queer little row of sores, the latter
having proceeded to adorn that part of my face which was trying hard to
be graced with a moustache. I recall that Monsieur Ree-chard decreed a bain
for B., with
bain meant immersion in a large tin tub
partially filled with not quite lukewarm water. I, on the contrary,
obtained a speck of zinc ointment on a minute piece of cotton, and
considered myself peculiarly fortunate. Which details cannot possibly
offend the reader's æsthetic sense to a greater degree than have
already certain minutiæ connected with the sanitary arrangements of the Directeur's
little home for homeless boys and girls—therefore I
will not trouble to beg the reader's pardon but will proceed with my
story proper or improper.
'Mais qu'est-ce que vous avez,' Monsieur le Surveillant
demanded, in a tone of profound if kindly astonishment, as I wended
my lonely way to la soupe some days after the disappearance of les partis.
I stood and stared at him very stupidly without answering, having
indeed nothing at all to say.
'But why are you so sad?' he asked.
'I suppose I miss my friend,' I ventured.
he puffed and panted like a very old and fat person trying to
persuade a bicycle to climb a hill—'mais—vous avez de la
'I suppose I have,' I said without enthusiasm.
'Mais-mais-parfaite-ment—vous avez de la chance—uh
ah—uh-ah—parce que—comprenez-vous—votre camarade—uh-ah—a
'Uh-ah,' I said wearily.
'Whereas,' continued Monsieur, 'you haven't. You ought to be
extraordinarily thankful and particularly happy!'
'I should rather have gone to prison with my friend,' I stated
briefly; and went into the dining-room, leaving the Surveillant uh-ahing in nothing short of complete amazement.
I really believe that my condition worried him, incredible as this
may seem. At the time I gave neither an extraordinary nor a particular
damn about Monsieur le Surveillant, nor indeed about 'l'autre
américain,' alias myself. Dimly, through a fog of disinterested
inapprehension, I realized that—with the exception of the plantons and of course Apollyon— everyone was trying very hard to help me;
that The Zulu, Jean, The Machine Fixer, Mexique, The Young Skipper,
even The Washing Machine Man (with whom I promenaded frequently when no
one else felt like taking the completely unagreeable air) were kind,
very kind, kinder than I can possibly say. As for Afrique and The
Cook—there was nothing too good for me at this time. I asked the
latter's permission to cut wood, and was not only accepted as a sawyer
but encouraged with assurances of the best coffee there was, with real
sugar dedans. In the little space outside the cuisine, between the building and
la cour, I sawed I away of a morning to
my great satisfaction, from time to time clumping my saboted way into
the chef's domain in answer to a subdued signal from Afrique. Of an
afternoon I sat with Jean or Mexique or The Zulu on the long beam of
silent iron, pondering very carefully nothing at all, replying to their
questions or responding to their observations in a highly mechanical
manner. I felt myself to be, at last, a doll—taken out occasionally
and played with and put back into its house and told to go to sleep. .
One afternoon I was lying on my couch, thinking of the usual
Nothing, when a sharp cry sung through The Enormous Room:
'Il tombe de la neige—Noël! Noël!'
I sat up. The
was at the nearest window,
dancing a little horribly and crying:
I went to another window and looked out. Sure enough. Snow was
falling, gradually and wonderfully falling, silently falling through
the thick, soundless autumn.... It seemed to me supremely beautiful,
the snow. There was about it something unspeakably crisp and exquisite,
something perfect and minute and gentle and fatal.... The Garde-Champêtre's
cry began a poem in the back of my head, a poem
about the snow, a poem in French, beginning Il tombe de la
neige— Noël, Noël. I watched the snow. After a long time I
returned to my bunk and I lay down, closing my eyes, feeling the snow's
minute and crisp touch falling gently and exquisitely, falling
perfectly and suddenly, through the thick, soundless autumn of my
Some one is speaking to me.
'Le petit belge avec le bras cassé est là-bas, à la Porte, il veut
vous parler ....
I marched the length of the room. The Enormous Room is filled with a
new and beautiful darkness, the darkness of the snow outside, falling
and falling and falling with the silent and actual gesture which has
touched the soundless country of my mind as a child touches a toy it
Through the locked door I heard a nervous whisper:
l'américain que je veux parler avec lui.'—'Me voici,' I said.
'Put your ear to the key-hole, M'sieu' Jean,' said The
Machine-Fixer's voice. The voice of the little Machine-Fixer,
tremendously excited. I obey"—'Alors. Qu'est-ce que c'est, môn ami?
'M'sieu' Jean! Le Directeur va vous appeler tout de suite! You
must get ready instantly! Wash and shave, eh? He's going to call you
right away. And don't forget! Oloron! You will ask to go to Oloron
Sainte-Marie, where you can paint! Oloron Sainte-Marie, Basse Pyrenees! N'oubliez Pas, M'sieu' Jean! Et dépêchez-vous!'
'Merci bien, mon ami!'—I remember now. The little Machine-Fixer
and I had talked. It seemed that la commission had decided that
I was not a criminal, but only a suspect. As a suspect I would be sent
to some place in France, any place I wanted to go provided it was not
on or near the sea-coast. That was in order that I should not perhaps
try to escape from France. The Machine-Fixer had advised me to ask to
go to Oloron Sainte-Marie. I should say that, as a painter, the
Pyrenees particularly appealed to me. 'Et qu'il fait beau, là-bas!
The snow on the mountains! And it's not cold. And what mountains! You
can live there very cheaply. As a suspect you will merely have to
report once a month to the chief of police of Oloron Sainte-Marie; he's
an old friend of mine! He's a fine, fat, red-cheeked man, very kindly.
He will make it easy for you, M'sieu' Jean, and will help you
out in every way, when you tell him you are a friend of the little
Belgian with the broken arm. Tell him I sent you. You will have a very
fine time, and you can paint: such scenery to paint! My God—not like
what you see from these windows. I advise you by all means to ask to go
So thinking I lathered my face, standing before Judas's mirror.
'You don't rub enough,' the Alsatian advised, 'il faut frotter
bien!' A number of fellow-captives were regarding my toilet with
surprise and satisfaction. I discovered in the mirror an astounding
beard and a good layer of dirt. I worked busily, counselled by several
voices, censured by the Alsatian, encouraged by Judas himself. The
shave and the wash completed, I felt considerably refreshed.
'L'américain en bas!'
It was the Black Holster. I carefully adjusted my tunic and obeyed
The Directeur and
were in consultation
when I entered the latter's office. Apollyon, seated at a desk,
surveyed me very fiercely. His subordinate swayed to and fro, clasping
and unclasping his hands behind his back, and regarded me with an
expression of almost benevolence. The Black Holster guarded the doorway.
Turning on me ferociously—'Votre ami est mauvais, très mauvais,
Le Directeur shouted.
I answered quietly, 'Oui? Je ne le savais pas.'
'He is a bad fellow, a criminal, a traitor, an insult to
civilization,' Apollyon roared into my face.
'Yes?' I said again.
'You'd better be careful!' The
Directeur shouted. 'Do you
know what's happened to your friend?'
'Sais pas,' I said.
'He's gone to prison where he belongs!' Apollyon roared. 'Do you
understand what that means?'
I answered, somewhat insolently I fear.
'You're lucky not to be there with him! Do you understand?'
Monsieur Le Directeur
thundered, 'and next time pick your friends
better, take more care I tell you, or you'll go where he is—TO PRISON
FOR THE REST OF THE WAR!'
"With my friend I should be well content in prison,' I said evenly,
trying to keep looking through him and into, the wall behind his black,
big, spidery body.
'In God's Name what a fool!' The
furiously—and The Surveillant remarked pacifyingly: 'Il
aime trop son camarade, c'est tout.'—'But his comrade is a
traitor and a villain!' objected the Fiend, at the top of his harsh
voice—'Comprenez-vous: votre ami est UN SALAUD!' he snarled at
He seems afraid that I don't get his idea, I said to myself. 'I
understand what you say,' I assured him.
'And you don't believe it?' he screamed, showing his fangs and
otherwise looking like an exceedingly dangerous maniac.
'Je ne le crois pas, Monsieur.'
'O God's name!' he shouted. "What a fool,
quel idiot, what a
beastly fool!' And he did something through his froth-covered lips,
something remotely suggesting laughter.
Hereupon The Surveillant again intervened. I was mistaken. It was
lamentable. I could not be made to understand. Very true. But I had
been sent for—'do you know, you have been decided to be a suspect,' Monsieur le Surveillant
turned to me, 'and now you may choose where
you wish to be sent.' Apollyon was blowing and wheezing and
muttering... clenching his huge pinkish hands.
I addressed the
ignoring Apollyon. 'I should
like, if I may, to go to Oloron Sainte-Marie.'
'What do you want to go there for?' the
I explained that I was by profession an artist, and had always
wanted to view the Pyrenees. 'The environment of Oloron would be most
stimulating to an artist—'
'Do you know it's near Spain?' he snapped, looking straight at me.
I knew it was, and therefore replied with a carefully childish
ignorance: 'Spain? Indeed! Very interesting.'
'You want to escape from France, that's it?' The
'Oh, I hardly should say that,' The
soothingly, 'he is an artist, and Oloron is a very pleasant place for
an artist. A very nice place. I hardly think his choice of Oloron a
cause for suspicion. I should think it a very natural desire on his
part.'—His superior subsided snarling.
After a few more questions I signed some papers which lay on the
desk, and was told by Apollyon to get out.
'When can I expect to leave?' I asked The
'Oh, it's only a matter of days, of weeks perhaps,' he assured me
'You'll leave when it's proper for you to leave!' Apollyon burst
out. 'Do you understand?'
'Yes, indeed. Thank you very much,' I replied with a bow, and
exited. On the way to The Enormous Room the Black Holster said to me
'Vous allez partir?'
He gave me such a look as would have turned a mahogany piano leg
into a mound of smoking ashes, and slammed the key into the lock.
Every one gathered about me. 'What news?'
'I have asked to go to Oloron as a suspect,' I answered.
'You should have taken my advice and asked to go to Cannes,' the fat
Alsatian reproached me. He had indeed spent a great while advising
me—but I trusted the little Machine-Fixer.
Jean le Nègre said with huge eyes, touching me gently.
'Non, non. Plus tard, peut être. Pas maintenant,'
I assured him. And he patted my shoulder and smiled,
'Bon!' And we smoked a cigarette in honour of the snow, of which
Jean—in contrast to the majority of les hommes —highly and
unutterably approved. 'C'est joli!' he would say, laughing
wonderfully. And next morning he and I went on an exclusive promenade,
I in my sabots, Jean in a new pair of slippers which he had received
(after many requests) from the bureau. And we strode to and fro
in the muddy cour admiring la neige, not speaking.
One day, after the snow-fall, I received from Paris a complete set
of Shakespeare in the Everyman edition. I had forgotten completely that
B. and I—after trying and failing to get William Blake—had ordered
and paid for the better known William; the ordering and communicating
in general being done with the collaboration of Monsieur Pet-airs. It
was a curious and interesting feeling which I experienced upon first
opening to 'As You Like It' . . . the volumes had been carefully
inspected, I learned, by the secrétaire, in order to eliminate
the possibility of their concealing something valuable or dangerous.
And in this connection let me add that the secrétaire, or (if
not he) his superiors, were a good judge of what is valuable—if not
what is dangerous. I know this because, whereas my family several times
sent me socks, in every case enclosing cigarettes, I received
invariably the former sans the latter. Perhaps it is not fair to
suspect the officials of La Ferté of this particularly mean theft; I
should, possibly, doubt the honesty of that very same French censor
whose intercepting of B.'s correspondence had motivated our removal
from the Section Sanitaire. Heaven knows I wish (like the Three
'Wise Men) to give justice where justice is due.
Somehow or other, reading Shakespeare did not appeal to my
disordered mind. I tried 'Hamlet' and 'Julius Cæsar' once or twice and
gave it up, after telling a man who asked 'Shah-kay-spare, who is
Shah-kay-spare?' that Mr. S. was the Homer of the English-speaking
peoples—which remark, to my surprise, appeared to convey a very
definite idea to the questioner and sent him away perfectly satisfied.
Most of the timeless time I spent promenading in the rain and sleet
with Jean le Nègre, or talking with Mexique, or exchanging big gifts of
silence with The Zulu. For Oloron—I did not believe in it, and I did
not particularly care. If I went away, good; if I stayed, so long as
Jean and The Zulu and Mexique were with me, good. 'M'en fous pas
mal' pretty nearly summed up my philosophy.
At least The
let me alone on the
topic. After my brief visit to Satan I wallowed in a perfect luxury of
dirt. And no one objected. On the contrary, every one (realizing that
the enjoyment of dirt may be made the basis of a fine art) beheld with
something like admiration my more and more uncouth appearance.
Moreover, my being dirtier than usual I was protesting in a (to me)
very satisfactory way against all that was neat and tidy and bigoted
and solemn and founded upon the anguish of my fine friends. And my fine
friends, being my fine friends, understood. Simultaneously with my
arrival at the summit of dirtiness—by December the
twenty-first—came the Black Holster into The Enormous Room and with
an excited and angry mien proclaimed loudly:
"L'américain! Allez chez Le Directeur. De suite.`
I protested mildly that I was dirty
'N'importe. Allez avec moi,'
and down I went to the amazement of every one and the great
amusement of myself. 'By Jove, wait till he sees me this time,' I
said nothing when I entered.
extended a piece of paper, which I read.
said, with an attempt at amiability,
vous allez sortir.'
I looked at him in eleven-tenths of amazement. I was standing in the
bureau de Monsieur le Directeur du Camp de Triage de la Ferté Macé,
Orne, France, and holding in my hand a slip of paper which said that if
there was a man named Edward E. Cummings, he should report immediately
to the American Embassy, Paris, and I had just heard the words:
'Alors, vous allez sortir,'
which words were pronounced in a voice so subdued, so constrained,
so mild, so altogether ingratiating, that I could not imagine to whom
it belonged. Surely not to the Fiend, to Apollyon, to the Prince of
Hell, to Satan, to Monsieur le Directeur du Camp de Triage de la
'Get ready. You will leave immediately.'
Then I noticed the
Upon his face I saw an almost
smile. He returned my gaze and remarked:
'That's all,' The
Directeur said. 'You will call for your
money at the bureau of the Gestionnaire before leaving.'
'Go and get ready,' The Fencer said, and I certainly saw a smile....
'I? Am? Going? To? Paris?' somebody who certainly wasn't myself
remarked in a kind of whisper.
.'—Pettish. Apollyon. But how changed. 'Who the devil is myself?
Where in Hell am I? What is Paris—a place, a somewhere, a city, life,
to live: infinitive. Present first singular I live. Thou livest. The Directeur.
La Ferté Macé, Orne, France.
'Edward E. Cummings will report immediately.' Edward E. Cummings. The Surveillant.
A piece of yellow paper. The
necktie. Paris. Life. Liberté. La Liberté. 'La Liberté'—-I
almost shouted in agony.'
"Dépêchez-vous. Savez-vous, vous allez partir de suite. Cet
après-midi. Pour Paris.'
I turned, I turned so suddenly as almost to bowl over the Black
Holster, Black Holster and all; I turned toward the door, I turned upon
the Black Holster, I turned into Edward E. Cummings, I turned into what
was dead and is now alive, I turned into a city, I turned into a
I am standing in The Enormous Room for the last time. I am saying
good-bye. No, it is not I who am saying good-bye. It is in fact
somebody else, possibly myself. Perhaps myself has shaken hands with a
little creature with a wizened arm, a little creature in whose eyes
tears for some reason are; with a placid youth (Mexique?) who smiles
and says shakily:
'Good-bye, Johnny, I no for-get you,'
with a crazy old fellow who somehow or other has got inside B.'s
tunic and is gesticulating and crying out and laughing; with a
frank-eyed boy who claps me on the back and says:
'Good-bye and good-luck t' you'
(is he The Young Skipper, by any chance?); with a lot of hungry,
wretched, beautiful people—I have given my bed to The Zulu, by Jove,
and The Zulu is even now standing guard over it, and his friend The
Young Pole has given me the address of 'mon ami,' and there are
tears in The Young Pole's eyes, and I seem to be amazingly tall and
altogether tearless—and this is the nice Norwegian, who got drunk at
Bordeaux and stole three (or four was it?) cans of sardines ... and now
I feel before me some one who also has tears in his eyes, some one who
is in fact crying, some one whom I feel to be very strong and young as
he hugs me quietly in his firm alert arms., kissing me on both cheeks
and on the lips....
—O good-bye, good-bye, I am going away, Jean; have a good time,
laugh wonderfully when la neige comes....
And I am standing somewhere with arms lifted up.
'Si tu as
une lettre, sais-tu, il faut dire. For if I find a letter on you it
will go hard with the man that gave it to you to take out.' Black. The
Black Holster even. Does not examine my baggage. Wonder why? 'Allez!' Jean's letter to his
gonzesse in Paris still
safe in my little pocket under my belt. Ha ha, by God, that's a good
one on you, you Black Holster, you Very Black Holster. That's a good
one. Glad I said good-bye to the cook. Why didn't I give Monsieur
Auguste's little friend, the cordonnier, more than six francs
for mending my shoes? He looked so injured. I am a fool, and I am going
into the street, and I am going by myself with no planton into
the little street of the little city of La Ferté Macé which is a
little, a very little city in France, where once upon a time I used to
catch water for an old man
I have already shaken hands with the cook, and with the
has beautifully mended my shoes. I am saying
good-bye to les deux balayeurs. I am shaking hands with the
little (the very little) Machine-Fixer again. I have given him a franc
and I have given Garibaldi a franc. 'We had a drink a moment ago on me.
The tavern is just opposite the gare, where there will soon be a
train. I will get upon the soonness of the train and ride into the now
of Paris. No, I must change at a station called Briouse did you say)
Good-bye, mes amis, et bonne chance! They -disappear, pulling
and pushing at a cart, les deux balayeurs ... de mes couilles ... by Jove, what a tin noise is coming, see the wooden engineer, he makes
a funny gesture utterly composed (composed silently and entirely) of merde. Merde! Merde.
A wee, tiny, absurd whistle coming from
nowhere, from outside of me. Two men opposite. Jolt. A few houses, a
fence, a wall, a bit of neige float foolishly by and through a
window. These gentlemen in my compartment do not seem to know that La Misère
exists. They are talking politics. Thinking that I don't
understand. By Jesus, that's a good one. 'Pardon me, gentlemen, but
does one change at the next station for Paris?' Surprised, I thought
so. 'Yes, Monsieur, the next station.' By Hell I surprised somebody....
'Who are a million, a trillion, a nonillion young men? All are
standing. I am standing. We are wedged in and on and over and under
each other. Sardines. Knew a man once who was arrested for stealing
sardines. I, sardine, look at three sardines, at three million
sardines, at a carful of sardines. How did I get here? O yes, of
course. Briouse. Horrible name 'Briouse.' Made a bluff at riding deuxième classe
on a troisième classe
ticket bought for me
by les deux balayeurs. Gentleman in the compartment talked
French with me till conductor appeared. 'Tickets, gentleman?' I
extended mine dumbly. He gave me a look. 'How? This is third class!' I
look intelligently ignorant. 'Il ne comprend pas français,' says
the gentleman. 'Ah!' says the conductor, 'tease ease eye-ee thoorde
claz tea-keat. You air een tea saycoend claz. You weel go eantoo tea
thoorde claz weal you yes pleace at once?' So I got stung after all.
Third is more amusing certainly, though god-damn hot with these
sardines, including myself of course. Oh yes, of course. Poilus
en per-mission. Very old some. Others mere kids. Once saw a planton who never saw a razor. Yet he was
réformé. C'est la
guerre. Several of us get off and stretch at a little
tanktown-station. Engine thumping up front somewhere in the darkness.
Wait. They get their bidons filled. Wish I had a bidon, a dis-donc bidon n'est-ce pas. Faut pas t'en faire,
who sang or said
I am almost asleep. Or myself. What's the matter here? Sardines
writhing about, cut it out, no room for that sort of thing. Jolt.
Morning. Morning in Paris. I found my bed full of fleas this
morning, and I couldn't catch the fleas, though I tried hard because I
was ashamed that anyone should find fleas in my bed which is at the
Hotel des Saints Peres whither I went in a fiacre and the driver
didnt know where it was. Wonderful. This is the American embassy. I
must look funny in my pelisse. Thank God for the breakfast. I
ate somewhere ... good-looking girl, Parisienne, at the
switch-board upstairs. 'Go right in, sir.' A 1 English, by God. So this
is the person to whom Edward E. Cummings is immediately to report.
'Is this Mr. Cummings?'
'Yes.' Rather a young man, very young in fact. Jove, I must look
'Sit down! We've been looking all over creation for you.'
'Have some cigarettes?'
By God, he gives me a sac of Bull. Extravagant they are at the
American Embassy. Can I roll one? I can. I do.
Conversation. Pleased to see me. Thought I was lost for good. Tried
every means to locate me. Just discovered where I was. What was it
like? No, really? You don't mean it! Well I'll be damned! Look here;
this man B., what sort of a fellow is he? Well I'm interested to hear
you say that. Look at his correspondence. It seemed to me that a fellow
who could write like that wasn't dangerous. Must be a little queer.
Tell me, isn't he a trifle foolish? That's what I thought. Now I'd
advise you to leave France as soon as you can. They're picking up
ambulance men left and right, men who've got no business to be in
Paris. Do you want to leave by the next boat? I'd advise it. Good. Got
money? If you haven't we'll pay your fare. Or half of it. Plenty, eh?
Norton Harjes, I see. Mind going second class? Good. Not much
difference on this line. Now you can take these papers and go to ....
No time to lose, as she sails to-morrow. That's it. Grab a taxi, and
hustle. When you've got those signatures bring them to me and I'll fix
you all up. Get your ticket first, here's a letter to the manager of
the Compagnie Generale. Then go through the police department. You can
do it if you hurry. See you later. Make it quick, eh? Good-bye!
Les rues de Paris.
I walked past Notre
Dame. I bought tobacco. Jews are peddling things with American
trade-marks on them, because in a day or two it's Christmas I suppose.
Jesus, it is cold. Dirty snow. Huddling people. La guerre. Always la guerre.
And chill. Goes through these big mittens.
To-morrow I shall be on the ocean. Pretty neat the way that passport
was put through. Rode all day in a taxi, two cylinders, running on one.
Everywhere waiting lines. I stepped to the head and was attended to by
the officials of the great and good French government. Gad, that's a
good one. A good one on le gouvernement français. Pretty good. Les rues sont tristes.
Perhaps there's no Christmas, perhaps the
French Government has forbidden Christmas. Clerk at Norton Harjes
seemed astonished to see me. O God it is cold in Paris. Every one looks
hard under lamplight, because it's winter I suppose. Every one hurried.
Every one hard. Every one cold. Every one huddling. Every one alive;
Shall I give this man five francs for dressing my hand? He said
'anything you like, monsieur.' Ship's doctor's probably well-paid.
Probably not. Better hurry before I put my lunch. Awe-inspiring stink,
because it's in the bow. Little member of the crew immersing his guess
what in a can of some liquid or other, groaning from time to time,
staggers when the boat tilts. 'Merci bien, Monsieur!' That was
the proper thing. Now for the—never can reach it—here's the première classe
one—any port in a storm . . . Feel better now.
Narrowly missed American officer but just managed to make it. Was it
yesterday or day before saw the Vaterland, I mean the
what deuce is it—that biggest in the world afloat boat. Damned rough.
Snow falling. Almost slid through the railing that time. Snow. The snow
is falling into the sea; which quietly receives it: into which it
utterly and peacefully disappears. Man with a college degree returning
from Spain, not disagreeable sort, talks Spanish with that fat man
who's an Argentinian.—Tinian?—Tinish, perhaps. All the same. In
other words Tin. Nobody at the table knows I speak English or am
American. Hell, that's a good one on nobody. That's a pretty fat kind
of a joke on nobody.
Think I'm French. Talk mostly with those three or four Frenchmen
going on permission to somewhere via New York. One has an
accordion. Like second class. Wait till you see the gratte-ciel, I tell 'em. They say
'Oui? and don't believe. I'll show them.
America. 'The land of the flea and the home of the dag'—short for
dago of course.
My spirits are constantly improving. Funny Christmas, second day
out. Wonder if we'll dock New Year's Day. My God, what a list to
starboard. They say a waiter broke his arm when it happened, ballast
shifted. Don't believe it. Something wrong. I know I nearly fell
downstairs. . . .
My God, what an ugly island. Hope we don't stay here long. All the
red-bloods first-class much excited about land. Damned ugly, I think.
The tall, impossibly tall, incomparably tall, city shoulderingly
upward into hard sunlight leaned a little through the octaves of its
parallel edges, leaningly strode upward into firm, hard, snowy
sunlight; the noises of America nearingly throbbed with smokes and
hurrying dots which are men and which are women and which are things
new and curious and hard and strange and vibrant and immense, lifting
with a great ondulous stride firmly into immortal sunlight....