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The prison for condemned convicts, built by the side of, and as a comparison to, the prison for youthful offenders, is a living and striking antithesis. It is not only that the beginning and the ending of the evil-doer face each other; there is also the perpetual confronting of the two penal systems, -- solitary confinement and imprisonment in common. This is almost enough to decide the question. It is a dark and silent duel between the dungeon and the cell, between the old prison and the new.

An Over-Night Criminal

by Victor Hugo

The prison for condemned convicts, built by the side of, and as a comparison to, the prison for youthful offenders, is a living and striking antithesis. It is not only that the beginning and the ending of the evil-doer face each other; there is also the perpetual confronting of the two penal systems, -- solitary confinement and imprisonment in common. This is almost enough to decide the question. It is a dark and silent duel between the dungeon and the cell, between the old prison and the new.

On one side were all the condemned, pell-mell,--the child of seventeen with the old man of seventy; the prisoner of thirteen months with the convict for life; the beardless lad who has filched apples and the assassin of the highway, snatched from the Place Saint-Jacques and sent to Toulon in consequence of "extenuating circumstances;" the almost innocent and the quasi-condemned; the blue-eyed and the grey-beard; hideous, pestilential workshops, where they sewed and worked in semi-darkness, amid things dirty and foetid, without air, daylight, speech; without looking at each other; without interest; horrible, mournful spectres, some of whom terrified one by their age, and others by their youth.

On the other side a cloister, a hive, each worker in his cell, each sole in his alveole: an immense edifice of three stories, inhabited by neighbours who never saw each other; a town composed of small hermitages; nothing but children and children who do not know each other, who live years close to each other without ever hearing the echo of each other's foot-falls or the sound of their voices, separated by a wall, by an abyss: work, study, tools, books; eight hours sleep, one hour of repose, one hour of play, in a small walled court; prayers morning and evening; thoughts ever!

On one side the cesspool, on the other cultivation!

You enter a cell; you find a child standing up before a bench lighted by a dirty window, of which one square pane at the top can be opened. The child is clad in coarse serge; clean, grave, quiet. He ceases working and salutes. You question him; he replies with a serious gaze, and in subdued tones.

Some are making locks, a dozen a day; others are carving furniture, etc., etc. There are as many conditions as stories; as many workshops as corridors. The child can read and write besides. He has in prison a master for his brain as well as for his body.

You must not think that because of its mildness the prison is insufficient punishment. No; it is profoundly sad. All the prisoners have an appearance of punishment which is peculiar.

There are still many more criticisms to be passed; the cell system begins. It has almost all its improvements to come; but incomplete and imperfect as it is at present, it is admirable when compared with the system of imprisonment in common.

The prisoner--a captive on all sides, and only at all free on the working side--interests himself in what he makes, whatever it may be. Thus, a lad who hated all occupations becomes a most furiously industrious mechanic. When one is in solitary confinement one manages to find light in the darkest dungeon.

The other day I was visiting the convict prison, and I said to the governor, who accompanied me:--

"You have a man condemned to death here now?"

""Yes, sir, a man named Marquis, who tried to murder a girl, Torisse, with intent to rob her."

"I should like to speak to that man," I said.

"Sir," replied the governor, "I am here to take your orders, but I cannot admit you into the condemned cell."

"Why not?"

"Sir, the police regulations do not permit us to introduce everybody into the cells of the condemned."

I replied, "I am not acquainted with the conditions of the police regulations, M. le Directour de la Prison, but I know what the law permits. The law places the prisons under the authority of the Chambers, and the officials under the surveillance of the Peers of France, who can be called upon to judge them. Wherever it is possible that an abuse may exist, the legislature may come in and search for it. Evil may exist in the cell of a man codemned to death. It is therefore my duty to enter, and yours to open it."

The governor made no reply, and led me forward.

We skirted a small courtyard in which were some flowers, and which was surrounded by a gallery. This was the exercise-ground of the condemned prisoners. It was surrounded by four lofty buildings. In the center of one of the sides of the gallery there is a heavy door bound with iron. A wicket opened, and I found myself in a kind of ante-chamber, gloomy and paved with stone. Before me were three doors, -- one directly opposite me, te others on either hand: three heavy doors, pierced with a grating, and cased with iron. These three doors opened into three cells, appropriated to the use of the condemned criminals who awaited their fate after the double appeal to the judge and to the Supreme Courts. This generally means a respite of two months.

"We have never had more than two of these cells occupied at the same time," said the governor.

The door of the centre one was opened. It was that of the condemned cell then occupied.

I entered.

As I crossed the threshold a man rose quickly and stood up.

This man was at the other end of the cell. I saw him at once. A pale gleam of daylight which descended from a wide, deeply-set window above his head lighted it up from the back. His head was bare, his neck was bare; he had shoes on and a strait-waistcoat, and pantaloons of brown woollen stuff. The sleeves of this waistcoat, of thick grey linen, were tied in front. His hand could be distinguished resting on this, and holding a pipe quite full of tobacco. He was on the point of lighting this pipe at the moment the door was opened. This was the condemned man.

Nothing could be seen through the window but a glimpse of the rainy sky.

There was a moment's silence. I was too greatly moved to be able to speak.

He was a young man, evidently not more than twenty-two or twenty-three years old. His chestnut hair, which curled naturally, was cut short; his beard had not been trimmed. He had beautiful large eyes, but his glance was low and villainous, his nose flat, his temples prominent; the bones behind the ears large, which is a bad sign; the forehead low, the mouth coarse, and to the left of the cheek was that peculiar puffing which agony produces. He was pale; his whole face was contracted; nevertheless, at our entry he forced a smile.

He stood upright. His bed was on his left hand, -- a kind of truckle-bed, in disorder, on which he had in all probability been extended just previously, -- and to his right a small table of wood, coarsely painted a yellow hue, having for a top a plank painted to imitate marble. On this table were glazed earthenware dishes containing cooked vegetables and a little meat, a piece of bread, and a leathern pouch full of tobacco. A straw chair stood beside the table.

This was not the horrible cell of the Conciergerie. It was a good-sized room, fairly light, coloured yellow, furnished with the bed, table, and chair aforesaid, a faience stove, and a shelf fitted in the angle of the wall opposite the window laden with old clothes and old crockery. In another corner there was a square chair, which replaced the ignoble tub of the old prisons.

Everything was clean, or nearly so, in good order, swept and garnished, and had that indescribable homeliness about it which deprives things of their unpleasantness as well as of their attractiveness. The barred window was open. Two small chains for supporting the sashes hung to two nails above the head of the condemned man. Near the stove two men stood, -- a soldier, armed only with his sword, and a warder. Condemned criminals always have this escort of two men, who do not leave them night or day. The attendants are relieved every three hours.

I did not take in all these details at once. The condemned man absorbed all my attention.

M. Paillard de Villeneuve was with me. The governor broke the silence.

"Marquis," he said, pointing to me, "this gentleman is here in your interest."

"Sir," I said, "If you have any complaint to make, I am here to entertain it."

The condemned bowed, and replied with a smile which sat ill upon him, "I have no complaints sir; I am very well here. These gentlemen [indicating his guardians] are very kind, and would willingly converse with me. The governor comes to see me from time to time."

"How do they feed you?" I asked.

"Very well, sir; I have double rations." Then he added with a pause, "We have a right to double rations; and then I have white bread too."

I glanced at the piece of bread, which was white.

He added, "The prison bread is the only thing to which I have not been able to accustom myself. At Sainte Pélagie, where I was detained, we formed a society of young men among ourselves, and so as not to mix with others, to have white bread."

I replied, "Were you better off in Sainte Pélagie than here?"

"I was very well at Sainte Pélagie, and I am very well here."

I continued, "You said you did not want to mix with the others. What do you mean by 'the others'?"

"There were a great many common people there," he replied.

The condemned was the son of a porter in the Rue Chabanais.

"Is your bed comfortable?" I asked.

The governor lifted the coverings and said, "Yes, sir; a hair mattress, two mattresses, and two blankets."

"And two bolsters." added Marquis.

"Do you sleep well?" I asked.

He replied without hesitation, "very well."

There was on the bed an open, torn volume.

"You read?"

"Yes, sir."

I took up the book. It was an "Abridgement of Geography and History," printed in the last century. The first pages and half the binding were wanting. The book was open at a description of the Lake of Constance.

"Sir," said the governor to me, "I lent him the book."

I turned to Marquis.

"Does this book interest you?"

"Yes, sir," he replied. "The governor has also lent me the 'Voyages of La Perouse' and Captain Cook. I am very fond of the adventures of our great explorers. I have read them already, but I re-read them with pleasure, and I will read them again in one year, or in ten."

He did not say I could read them, but I will read them. For the rest, the ppor young man was a good talker, and was fond of hearing himself speak. "Our great explorers" is textual. He talked like a newspaper. In all the rest of his remarks I remarked this absence of naturalness. Everything disappears in the face of death except affectation. Goodness vanishes, wickedness disappears, the benevolent man becomes bitter, the rude man polite, the affected man remains affected. A strange thing it is that death touches you, but does not give you simplicity.

He was a ppor, vain workman; a bit of an artist, too much and too little, who had been destroyed by vanity. He had the idea of coming out and enjoying himself. He had stolen a hundred francs from his father's desk, and the next day, after a course of pleasure and dissipation, he had killed a girl in order to rob her. This terrible ladder, which has so many steps that lead from domestic robbery to murder, from the paternal reprimand to the scaffold, criminals like Lacenaire and Poulmann take twenty years to descend; he, this young man, who was a lad but yesterday, had cleared them all in twenty-four horus! He had, as an old convict, a former school master, said in the courtyard, jumped all the steps.

What an abyss is such a destiny!

He turned over the leaves for a few minutes, and I continued: "Have you never had any means of existence?"

He raised his head, and replied, with some pride, "yes, indeed, sir."

Then he proceeded. I did not interrupt him.

"I was a furniture designer. I have even studied to be an architect. I am called Marquis. I was a pupil of M. Le Duc."

He referred to M. Viollet Le Duc, the architecht of the Louvre. I remarked, in the complacent sequence of the word Marquis, "Le Duc!" However, he had not yet ended.

"I started a 'Journal of Design' for cabinet makers. I had already made some progress. I wanted to give carpet manufacturers designs in the Renaissance style, made according to the rules of the trade, which they had never had. They are forced to content themselves with engravings of very incorrect styles."

"You had a good idea. Why did you not carry it out?"

"It miscarried, sir."

He spoke the words quickly, and added: "However, I do not mean to say that I wanted money. I had talent, I sold my designs; I would certainly have finished by selling them at my own price."

I could not help saying, "Then, why--"

He understood, and answered: "I really cannot say. The idea crossed my mind. I should not be thought capable of that at this fatal day."

At the words, 'fatal day' he stopped, then continued, with a sort of carelessnes:--

"I am sorry I have not some designs here; I would show them to you. I also painted landscapes. M. Le Duc taught me water-colour painting. I succeeded in the Cicéri style. I did things which you would have sworn were Cicéri's. I am very fond of drawing. At Sainte Pélagie I drew the portraits of my companions in crayons only. They would not let me have my box of water colours."

"Why?" I asked without thinking.

He hesitated. I was sorry I had put the question, for I divined the reason.

"Sir," he said, "it was because they fancied there was poison in the colours. They were wrong. They are water-colours."

"But," remarked the governor, "there is minium in the vermillion?"

"It is possible," he replied. "The fact is, they did not permit it, and I had to content myself with the crayons. The portraits were all good likenesses too."

"And what do you do here?"

"I occupy myself."

He remained deep in thought after this reply, then he added, "I can draw well. This," indicating the strait-waistcoat, "does not interfere with me. In an extreme case one can draw." He moved his hand beneath his bonds as he spoke. "And then these gentlemen are very kind" (indicating the attendants). "They have already offered to let me raise the sleeves. But I do something else,--I read."

"You see the chaplain, of course?"

"Yes, sir; he comes to see me."

Here he turned to see the governor, and said, "But I have not yet seen the Abbé Montès."

That name in his mouth had a sinister effect on me. I had seen the Abbé Montès once in my life,--one summer day on the Pont au Change, in the cart which was carrying Louvel to the scaffold.

Nevertheless the governor replied, "Ah, dame! He is old; he is nearly eighty six. The poor man is in attendance when he can."

"Eighty six!" I exclaimed. "That is what is wanted so long as he has a little strength. At h is age one is so near to God that one ought to speak very beautiful words."

"I will see him with pleasure," Said Marquis quickly.

"Sir," said I, "we must have hope."

"Oh!" said he. "do not discourage me. First, I have my petition to the Appeal Court, and then I have my demand en grâce. The sentence which has been pronounced may be quashed. I do not say that it is not just, but it is a little severe. They ought to have taken my age into consideration, and given me the benefit of extenuating circumstances. And then I have signed my petition to the king. My father, who comes to see me, bids me at ease. M. Le Duc himself sent the petition to his Majesty. M. Le Duc knows me well; he knows his pupil Marquis. The king is not in the habit of refusing himi anything. It is impossible that they will refuse me a pardon--I do not say a free pardon--but--"

He was silent.

"Yes," I said, "be of good courage; you have here your judges on one side, and your father on the other. But above you have also your father and your judge who is God, who cannot feel the necessity to condemn you without at the same time experiencing the desire to pardon you. Hope, then."

"Thank you, sir," replied Marquis.

Again silence ensued.

Then I asked, "Do you require anything?"

"I would like to go out and walk in the yard a little oftener. That is all, sir. I only am allowed out for a quarter of an hour a day."

"That is not sufficient." I said to the governor. "Why is it so?"

"Because of our great responsibility," he replied.

"Well!" I exclaimed, "put four guards on duty if two do not suffice, but do not refuse this young man a little air and sunlight. A court in the centre of the prison, stocks and bars everywhere, four lofty walls surrounding it, four guards always there, the strait-waistcoat, sentinels at every wicket, two rounds, and two enceintes sixty feet high, what have you to fear? The prisoner ought to be allowed to walk in the courtyard when he asks permission."

The governor bowed, and said, "That is but just, sir. I will carry out your suggestions."

The condemned man thanked me with effusiveness.

"It is time for me to leave you," I said. "Turn to God, and keep up your courage, sir."

"I shall have good courage, sir."

He accompanied me to the door, which was then shut upon him. The governor conducted me into the next cell on the right. It was longer than the other. It contained only a bed and a utensil.

It was in here that Poulmann was confined. In the six weeks which he passed here he wore out three pairs of shoes walking up and down these boards. He never ceased walking, and did fifteen leagues a day in his cell. He was a terrible man.

"You have had Joseph Henri?" I asked.

"Yes, sir; but in the infirmary only. He was ill. He was always writing to the Keeper of the Seals, to the procurator-general, to the chancellor, to the Great Refoundary, letters -- letters of four pages, and in small close writting too. One day I said to him, laughingly, 'It is fortunate that you are not compelled to read what you have written.' No one ever read them, evidently. He was a fool."

As I was leaving the prison, the governor indicated to me the two "rounds," or encircling paths: high walls, a scanty herbage, a sentry box at every thirty paces. He pointed out to me, under the very windows of the condemned cells, a place where two soldiers on duty had shot themselves the year before. They had blown their their brains out with their rifles, and we could see the bullet-holes in the sentry box. The rain had washed away the blood-stains from the wall. One man had killed himself because his officer, seeing him without his rifle, which he had left in the sentry-box, said to him in passing, "fifteen days in the salle de police." We never found out why the other man shot himself.