The End of Evil Ways/Section 2

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The End of Evil Ways by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 2

Just as the first prison van, conveying Jacques Collin, reached the archway of Saint-Jean—a narrow, dark passage, some block ahead compelled the postilion to stop under the vault. The prisoner's eyes shone like carbuncles through the grating, in spite of his aspect as of a dying man, which, the day before, had led the governor of La Force to believe that the doctor must be called in. These flaming eyes, free to rove at this moment, for neither the officer nor the gendarme looked round at their "customer," spoke so plain a language that a clever examining judge, M. Popinot, for instance, would have identified the man convicted for sacrilege.

In fact, ever since the "salad-basket" had turned out of the gate of La Force, Jacques Collin had studied everything on his way. Notwithstanding the pace they had made, he took in the houses with an eager and comprehensive glance from the ground floor to the attics. He saw and noted every passer-by. God Himself is not more clear-seeing as to the means and ends of His creatures than this man in observing the slightest differences in the medley of things and people. Armed with hope, as the last of the Horatii was armed with his sword, he expected help. To anybody but this Machiavelli of the hulks, this hope would have seemed so absolutely impossible to realize that he would have gone on mechanically, as all guilty men do. Not one of them ever dreams of resistance when he finds himself in the position to which justice and the Paris police bring suspected persons, especially those who, like Collin and Lucien, are in solitary confinement.

It is impossible to conceive of the sudden isolation in which a suspected criminal is placed. The gendarmes who apprehend him, the commissioner who questions him, those who take him to prison, the warders who lead him to his cell—which is actually called a cachot, a dungeon or hiding-place, those again who take him by the arms to put him into a prison-van—every being that comes near him from the moment of his arrest is either speechless, or takes note of all he says, to be repeated to the police or to the judge. This total severance, so simply effected between the prisoner and the world, gives rise to a complete overthrow of his faculties and a terrible prostration of mind, especially when the man has not been familiarized by his antecedents with the processes of justice. The duel between the judge and the criminal is all the more appalling because justice has on its side the dumbness of blank walls and the incorruptible coldness of its agents.

But Jacques Collin, or Carlos Herrera—it will be necessary to speak of him by one or the other of these names according to the circumstances of the case—had long been familiar with the methods of the police, of the jail, and of justice. This colossus of cunning and corruption had employed all his powers of mind, and all the resources of mimicry, to affect the surprise and anility of an innocent man, while giving the lawyers the spectacle of his sufferings. As has been told, Asie, that skilled Locusta, had given him a dose of poison so qualified as to produce the effects of a dreadful illness.

Thus Monsieur Camusot, the police commissioner, and the public prosecutor had been baffled in their proceedings and inquiries by the effects apparently of an apoplectic attack.

"He has taken poison!" cried Monsieur Camusot, horrified by the sufferings of the self-styled priest when he had been carried down from the attic writhing in convulsions.

Four constables had with great difficulty brought the Abbe Carlos downstairs to Esther's room, where the lawyers and the gendarmes were assembled.

"That was the best thing he could do if he should be guilty," replied the public prosecutor.

"Do you believe that he is ill?" the police commissioner asked.

The police is always incredulous.

The three lawyers had spoken, as may be imagined, in a whisper; but Jacques Collin had guessed from their faces the subject under discussion, and had taken advantage of it to make the first brief examination which is gone through on arrest absolutely impossible and useless; he had stammered out sentences in which Spanish and French were so mingled as to make nonsense.

At La Force this farce had been all the more successful in the first instance because the head of the "safety" force—an abbreviation of the title "Head of the brigade of the guardians of public safety"—Bibi-Lupin, who had long since taken Jacques Collin into custody at Madame Vauquer's boarding-house, had been sent on special business into the country, and his deputy was a man who hoped to succeed him, but to whom the convict was unknown.

Bibi-Lupin, himself formerly a convict, and a comrade of Jacques Collin's on the hulks, was his personal enemy. This hostility had its rise in quarrels in which Jacques Collin had always got the upper hand, and in the supremacy over his fellow-prisoners which Trompe-la-Mort had always assumed. And then, for ten years now, Jacques Collin had been the ruling providence of released convicts in Paris, their head, their adviser, and their banker, and consequently Bibi-Lupin's antagonist.

Thus, though placed in solitary confinement, he trusted to the intelligent and unreserved devotion of Asie, his right hand, and perhaps, too, to Paccard, his left hand, who, as he flattered himself, might return to his allegiance when once that thrifty subaltern had safely bestowed the seven hundred and fifty thousand francs that he had stolen. This was the reason why his attention had been so superhumanly alert all along the road. And, strange to say! his hopes were about to be amply fulfilled.

The two solid side-walls of the archway were covered, to a height of six feet, with a permanent dado of mud formed of the splashes from the gutter; for, in those days, the foot passenger had no protection from the constant traffic of vehicles and from what was called the kicking of the carts, but curbstones placed upright at intervals, and much ground away by the naves of the wheels. More than once a heavy truck had crushed a heedless foot-passenger under that arch-way. Such indeed Paris remained in many districts and till long after. This circumstance may give some idea of the narrowness of the Saint-Jean gate and the ease with which it could be blocked. If a cab should be coming through from the Place de Greve while a costermonger-woman was pushing her little truck of apples in from the Rue du Martroi, a third vehicle of any kind produced difficulties. The foot-passengers fled in alarm, seeking a corner-stone to protect them from the old-fashioned axles, which had attained such prominence that a law was passed at last to reduce their length.

When the prison van came in, this passage was blocked by a market woman with a costermonger's vegetable cart—one of a type which is all the more strange because specimens still exist in Paris in spite of the increasing number of green-grocers' shops. She was so thoroughly a street hawker that a Sergeant de Ville, if that particular class of police had been then in existence, would have allowed her to ply her trade without inspecting her permit, in spite of a sinister countenance that reeked of crime. Her head, wrapped in a cheap and ragged checked cotton kerchief, was horrid with rebellious locks of hair, like the bristles of a wild boar. Her red and wrinkled neck was disgusting, and her little shawl failed entirely to conceal a chest tanned brown by the sun, dust, and mud. Her gown was patchwork; her shoes gaped as though they were grinning at a face as full of holes as the gown. And what an apron! a plaster would have been less filthy. This moving and fetid rag must have stunk in the nostrils of dainty folks ten yards away. Those hands had gleaned a hundred harvest fields. Either the woman had returned from a German witches' Sabbath, or she had come out of a mendicity asylum. But what eyes! what audacious intelligence, what repressed vitality when the magnetic flash of her look and of Jacques Collin's met to exchange a thought!

"Get out of the way, you old vermin-trap!" cried the postilion in harsh tones.

"Mind you don't crush me, you hangman's apprentice!" she retorted. "Your cartful is not worth as much as mine."

And by trying to squeeze in between two corner-stones to make way, the hawker managed to block the passage long enough to achieve her purpose.

"Oh! Asie!" said Jacques Collin to himself, at once recognizing his accomplice. "Then all is well."

The post-boy was still exchanging amenities with Asie, and vehicles were collecting in the Rue du Martroi.

"Look out, there—Pecaire fermati. Souni la—Vedrem," shrieked old Asie, with the Red-Indian intonations peculiar to these female costermongers, who disfigure their words in such a way that they are transformed into a sort onomatopoeia incomprehensible to any but Parisians.

In the confusion in the alley, and among the outcries of all the waiting drivers, no one paid any heed to this wild yell, which might have been the woman's usual cry. But this gibberish, intelligible to Jacques Collin, sent to his ear in a mongrel language of their own—a mixture of bad Italian and Provencal—this important news:

"Your poor boy is nabbed. I am here to keep an eye on you. We shall meet again."

In the midst of his joy at having thus triumphed over the police, for he hoped to be able to keep up communications, Jacques Collin had a blow which might have killed any other man.

"Lucien in custody!" said he to himself.

He almost fainted. This news was to him more terrible than the rejection of his appeal could have been if he had been condemned to death.

Now that both the prison vans are rolling along the Quai, the interest of this story requires that I should add a few words about the Conciergerie, while they are making their way thither. The Conciergerie, a historical name—a terrible name,—a still more terrible thing, is inseparable from the Revolutions of France, and especially those of Paris. It has known most of our great criminals. But if it is the most interesting of the buildings of Paris, it is also the least known—least known to persons of the upper classes; still, in spite of the interest of this historical digression, it should be as short as the journey of the prison vans.

What Parisian, what foreigner, or what provincial can have failed to observe the gloomy and mysterious features of the Quai des Lunettes—a structure of black walls flanked by three round towers with conical roofs, two of them almost touching each other? This quay, beginning at the Pont du Change, ends at the Pont Neuf. A square tower—the Clock Tower, or Tour de l'Horloge, whence the signal was given for the massacre of Saint-Bartholomew—a tower almost as tall as that of Saint-Jacques de la Boucherie, shows where the Palais de Justice stands, and forms the corner of the quay.

These four towers and these walls are shrouded in the black winding sheet which, in Paris, falls on every facade to the north. About half-way along the quay at a gloomy archway we see the beginning of the private houses which were built in consequence of the construction of the Pont Neuf in the reign of Henry IV. The Place Royale was a replica of the Place Dauphine. The style of architecture is the same, of brick with binding courses of hewn stone. This archway and the Rue de Harlay are the limit line of the Palais de Justice on the west. Formerly the Prefecture de Police, once the residence of the Presidents of Parlement, was a dependency of the Palace. The Court of Exchequer and Court of Subsidies completed the Supreme Court of Justice, the Sovereign's Court. It will be seen that before the Revolution the Palace enjoyed that isolation which now again is aimed at.

This block, this island of residences and official buildings, in their midst the Sainte-Chapelle—that priceless jewel of Saint-Louis' chaplet—is the sanctuary of Paris, its holy place, its sacred ark.

For one thing, this island was at first the whole of the city, for the plot now forming the Place Dauphine was a meadow attached to the Royal demesne, where stood a stamping mill for coining money. Hence the name of Rue de la Monnaie—the street leading to the Pont Neuf. Hence, too, the name of one of the round towers—the middle one—called the Tour d'Argent, which would seem to show that money was originally coined there. The famous mill, to be seen marked in old maps of Paris, may very likely be more recent than the time when money was coined in the Palace itself, and was erected, no doubt, for the practice of improved methods in the art of coining.

The first tower, hardly detached from the Tour d'Argent, is the Tour de Montgomery; the third, and smallest, but the best preserved of the three, for it still has its battlements, is the Tour Bonbec.

The Sainte-Chapelle and its four towers—counting the clock tower as one—clearly define the precincts; or, as a surveyor would say, the perimeter of the Palace, as it was from the time of the Merovingians till the accession of the first race of Valois; but to us, as a result of certain alterations, this Palace is more especially representative of the period of Saint-Louis.

Charles V. was the first to give the Palace up to the Parlement, then a new institution, and went to reside in the famous Hotel Saint-Pol, under the protection of the Bastille. The Palais des Tournelles was subsequently erected backing on to the Hotel Saint-Pol. Thus, under the later Valois, the kings came back from the Bastille to the Louvre, which had been their first stronghold.

The original residence of the French kings, the Palace of Saint-Louis, which has preserved the designation of Le Palais, to indicate the Palace of palaces, is entirely buried under the Palais de Justice; it forms the cellars, for it was built, like the Cathedral, in the Seine, and with such care that the highest floods in the river scarcely cover the lowest steps. The Quai de l'Horloge covers, twenty feet below the surface, its foundations of a thousand years old. Carriages run on the level of the capitals of the solid columns under these towers, and formerly their appearance must have harmonized with the elegance of the Palace, and have had a picturesque effect over the water, since to this day those towers vie in height with the loftiest buildings in Paris.

As we look down on this vast capital from the lantern of the Pantheon, the Palace with the Sainte-Chapelle is still the most monumental of many monumental buildings. The home of our kings, over which you tread as you pace the immense hall known as the Salle des Pas-Perdus, was a miracle of architecture; and it is so still to the intelligent eye of the poet who happens to study it when inspecting the Conciergerie. Alas! for the Conciergerie has invaded the home of kings. One's heart bleeds to see the way in which cells, cupboards, corridors, warders' rooms, and halls devoid of light or air, have been hewn out of that beautiful structure in which Byzantine, Gothic, and Romanesque—the three phases of ancient art—were harmonized in one building by the architecture of the twelfth century.

This palace is a monumental history of France in the earliest times, just as Blois is that of a later period. As at Blois you may admire in a single courtyard the chateau of the Counts of Blois, that of Louis XII., that of Francis I., that of Gaston; so at the Conciergerie you will find within the same precincts the stamp of the early races, and, in the Sainte-Chapelle, the architecture of Saint-Louis.

Municipal Council (to you I speak), if you bestow millions, get a poet or two to assist your architects if you wish to save the cradle of Paris, the cradle of kings, while endeavoring to endow Paris and the Supreme Court with a palace worthy of France. It is a matter for study for some years before beginning the work. Another new prison or two like that of La Roquette, and the palace of Saint-Louis will be safe.

In these days many grievances afflict this vast mass of buildings, buried under the Palais de Justice and the quay, like some antediluvian creature in the soil of Montmartre; but the worst affliction is that it is the Conciergerie. This epigram is intelligible. In the early days of the monarchy, noble criminals—for the villeins (a word signifying the peasantry in French and English alike) and the citizens came under the jurisdiction of the municipality or of their liege lord—the lords of the greater or the lesser fiefs, were brought before the king and guarded in the Conciergerie. And as these noble criminals were few, the Conciergerie was large enough for the king's prisoners.

It is difficult now to be quite certain of the exact site of the original Conciergerie. However, the kitchens built by Saint-Louis still exist, forming what is now called the mousetrap; and it is probable that the original Conciergerie was situated in the place where, till 1825, the Conciergerie prisons of the Parlement were still in use, under the archway to the right of the wide outside steps leading to the supreme Court. From thence, until 1825, condemned criminals were taken to execution. From that gate came forth all the great criminals, all the victims of political feeling—the Marechale d'Ancre and the Queen of France, Semblancay and Malesherbes, Damien and Danton, Desrues and Castaing. Fouquier-Tinville's private room, like that of the public prosecutor now, was so placed that he could see the procession of carts containing the persons whom the Revolutionary tribunal had sentenced to death. Thus this man, who had become a sword, could give a last glance at each batch.

After 1825, when Monsieur de Peyronnet was Minister, a great change was made in the Palais. The old entrance to the Conciergerie, where the ceremonies of registering the criminal and of the last toilet were performed, was closed and removed to where it now is, between the Tour de l'Horloge and the Tour de Montgomery, in an inner court entered through an arched passage. To the left is the "mousetrap," to the right the prison gates. The "salad-baskets" can drive into this irregularly shaped courtyard, can stand there and turn with ease, and in case of a riot find some protection behind the strong grating of the gate under the arch; whereas they formerly had no room to move in the narrow space dividing the outside steps from the right wing of the palace.

In our day the Conciergerie, hardly large enough for the prisoners committed for trial—room being needed for about three hundred, men and women—no longer receives either suspected or remanded criminals excepting in rare cases, as, for instance, in these of Jacques Collin and Lucien. All who are imprisoned there are committed for trial before the Bench. As an exception criminals of the higher ranks are allowed to sojourn there, since, being already disgraced by a sentence in open court, their punishment would be too severe if they served their term of imprisonment at Melun or at Poissy. Ouvrard preferred to be imprisoned at the Conciergerie rather than at Sainte-Pelagie. At this moment of writing Lehon the notary and the Prince de Bergues are serving their time there by an exercise of leniency which, though arbitrary, is humane.

As a rule, suspected criminals, whether they are to be subjected to a preliminary examination—to "go up," in the slang of the Courts—or to appear before the magistrate of the lower Court, are transferred in prison vans direct to the "mousetraps."

The "mousetraps," opposite the gate, consist of a certain number of old cells constructed in the old kitchens of Saint-Louis' building, whither prisoners not yet fully committed are brought to await the hour when the Court sits, or the arrival of the examining judge. The "mousetraps" end on the north at the quay, on the east at the headquarters of the Municipal Guard, on the west at the courtyard of the Conciergerie, and on the south they adjoin a large vaulted hall, formerly, no doubt, the banqueting-room, but at present disused.

Above the "mousetraps" is an inner guardroom with a window commanding the court of the Conciergerie; this is used by the gendarmerie of the department, and the stairs lead up to it. When the hour of trial strikes the sheriffs call the roll of the prisoners, the gendarmes go down, one for each prisoner, and each gendarme takes a criminal by the arm; and thus, in couples, they mount the stairs, cross the guardroom, and are led along the passages to a room contiguous to the hall where sits the famous sixth chamber of the law (whose functions are those of an English county court). The same road is trodden by the prisoners committed for trial on their way to and from the Conciergerie and the Assize Court.

In the Salle des Pas-Perdus, between the door into the first court of the inferior class and the steps leading to the sixth, the visitor must observe the first time he goes there a doorway without a door or any architectural adornment, a square hole of the meanest type. Through this the judges and barristers find their way into the passages, into the guardhouse, down into the prison cells, and to the entrance to the Conciergerie.

The private chambers of all the examining judges are on different floors in this part of the building. They are reached by squalid staircases, a maze in which those to whom the place is unfamiliar inevitably lose themselves. The windows of some look out on the quay, others on the yard of the Conciergerie. In 1830 a few of these rooms commanded the Rue de la Barillerie.

Thus, when a prison van turns to the left in this yard, it has brought prisoners to be examined to the "mousetrap"; when it turns to the right, it conveys prisoners committed for trial, to the Conciergerie. Now it was to the right that the vehicle turned which conveyed Jacques Collin to set him down at the prison gate. Nothing can be more sinister. Prisoners and visitors see two barred gates of wrought iron, with a space between them of about six feet. These are never both opened at once, and through them everything is so cautiously scrutinized that persons who have a visiting ticket pass the permit through the bars before the key grinds in the lock. The examining judges, or even the supreme judges, are not admitted without being identified. Imagine, then, the chances of communications or escape!—The governor of the Conciergerie would smile with an expression on his lips that would freeze the mere suggestion in the most daring of romancers who defy probability.

In all the annals of the Conciergerie no escape has been known but that of Lavalette; but the certain fact of august connivance, now amply proven, if it does not detract from the wife's devotion, certainly diminished the risk of failure.

The most ardent lover of the marvelous, judging on the spot of the nature of the difficulties, must admit that at all times the obstacles must have been, as they still are, insurmountable. No words can do justice to the strength of the walls and vaulting; they must be seen.

Though the pavement of the yard is on a lower level than that of the quay, in crossing this Barbican you go down several steps to enter an immense vaulted hall, with solid walls graced with magnificent columns. This hall abuts on the Tour de Montgomery—which is now part of the governor's residence—and on the Tour d'Argent, serving as a dormitory for the warders, or porters, or turnkeys, as you may prefer to call them. The number of the officials is less than might be supposed; there are but twenty; their sleeping quarters, like their beds, are in no respect different from those of the pistoles or private cells. The name pistole originated, no doubt, in the fact that the prisoners formerly paid a pistole (about ten francs) a week for this accommodation, its bareness resembling that of the empty garrets in which great men in poverty begin their career in Paris.

To the left, in the vast entrance hall, sits the Governor of the Conciergerie, in a sort of office constructed of glass panes, where he and his clerk keep the prison-registers. Here the prisoners for examination, or committed for trial, have their names entered with a full description, and are then searched. The question of their lodging is also settled, this depending on the prisoner's means.

Opposite the entrance to this hall there is a glass door. This opens into a parlor where the prisoner's relations and his counsel may speak with him across a double grating of wood. The parlor window opens on to the prison yard, the inner court where prisoners committed for trial take air and exercise at certain fixed hours.

This large hall, only lighted by the doubtful daylight that comes in through the gates—for the single window to the front court is screened by the glass office built out in front of it—has an atmosphere and a gloom that strike the eye in perfect harmony with the pictures that force themselves on the imagination. Its aspect is all the more sinister because, parallel with the Tours d'Argent and de Montgomery, you discover those mysterious vaulted and overwhelming crypts which lead to the cells occupied by the Queen and Madame Elizabeth, and to those known as the secret cells. This maze of masonry, after being of old the scene of royal festivities, is now the basement of the Palais de Justice.

Between 1825 and 1832 the operation of the last toilet was performed in this enormous hall, between a large stove which heats it and the inner gate. It is impossible even now to tread without a shudder on the paved floor that has received the shock and the confidences of so many last glances.