Vautrin's Last Avatar/Section 4

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Vautrin's Last Avatar by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 4

As the men who were exercising in the prison-yard, when Trompe-la-Mort appeared there, were to be the actors in a scene of crowning importance in the life of Jacques Collin, it will be well to depict a few of the principal personages of this sinister crowd.

Here, as everywhere when men are thrown together, here, as at school even, force, physical and moral, wins the day. Here, then, as on the hulks, crime stamps the man's rank. Those whose head is doomed are the aristocracy. The prison-yard, as may be supposed, is a school of criminal law, which is far better learned there than at the Hall on the Place du Pantheon.

A never-failing pleasantry is to rehearse the drama of the Assize Court; to elect a president, a jury, a public prosecutor, a counsel, and to go through the whole trial. This hideous farce is played before almost every great trial. At this time a famous case was proceeding in the Criminal Court, that of the dreadful murder committed on the persons of Monsieur and Madame Crottat, the notary's father and mother, retired farmers who, as this horrible business showed, kept eight hundred thousand francs in gold in their house.

One of the men concerned in this double murder was the notorious Dannepont, known as la Pouraille, a released convict, who for five years had eluded the most active search on the part of the police, under the protection of seven or eight different names. This villain's disguises were so perfect, that he had served two years of imprisonment under the name of Delsouq, who was one of his own disciples, and a famous thief, though he never, in any of his achievements, went beyond the jurisdiction of the lower Courts. La Pouraille had committed no less than three murders since his dismissal from the hulks. The certainty that he would be executed, not less than the large fortune he was supposed to have, made this man an object of terror and admiration to his fellow-prisoners; for not a farthing of the stolen money had ever been recovered. Even after the events of July 1830, some persons may remember the terror caused in Paris by this daring crime, worthy to compare in importance with the robbery of medals from the Public Library; for the unhappy tendency of our age is to make a murder the more interesting in proportion to the greater sum of money secured by it.

La Pouraille, a small, lean, dry man, with a face like a ferret, forty-five years old, and one of the celebrities of the prisons he had successively lived in since the age of nineteen, knew Jacques Collin well, how and why will be seen.

Two other convicts, brought with la Pouraille from La Force within these twenty-four hours, had at once acknowledged and made the whole prison-yard acknowledge the supremacy of this past-master sealed to the scaffold. One of these convicts, a ticket-of-leave man, named Selerier, alias l'Avuergnat, Pere Ralleau, and le Rouleur, who in the sphere known to the hulks as the swell-mob was called Fil-de-Soie (or silken thread)—a nickname he owed to the skill with which he slipped through the various perils of the business—was an old ally of Jacques Collin's.

Trompe-la-Mort so keenly suspected Fil-de-Soie of playing a double part, of being at once in the secrets of the swell-mob and a spy laid by the police, that he had supposed him to be the prime mover of his arrest in the Maison Vauquer in 1819 (Le Pere Goriot). Selerier, whom we must call Fil-de-Soie, as we shall also call Dannepont la Pouraille, already guilty of evading surveillance, was concerned in certain well-known robberies without bloodshed, which would certainly take him back to the hulks for at least twenty years.

The other convict, named Riganson, and his kept woman, known as la Biffe, were a most formidable couple, members of the swell-mob. Riganson, on very distant terms with the police from his earliest years, was nicknamed le Biffon. Biffon was the male of la Biffe—for nothing is sacred to the swell-mob. These fiends respect nothing, neither the law nor religions, not even natural history, whose solemn nomenclature, it is seen, is parodied by them.

Here a digression is necessary; for Jacques Collin's appearance in the prison-yard in the midst of his foes, as had been so cleverly contrived by Bibi-Lupin and the examining judge, and the strange scenes to ensue, would be incomprehensible and impossible without some explanation as to the world of thieves and of the hulks, its laws, its manners, and above all, its language, its hideous figures of speech being indispensable in this portion of my tale.

So, first of all, a few words must be said as to the vocabulary of sharpers, pickpockets, thieves, and murderers, known as Argot, or thieves' cant, which has of late been introduced into literature with so much success that more than one word of that strange lingo is familiar on the rosy lips of ladies, has been heard in gilded boudoirs, and become the delight of princes, who have often proclaimed themselves "done brown" (floue)! And it must be owned, to the surprise no doubt of many persons, that no language is more vigorous or more vivid than that of this underground world which, from the beginnings of countries with capitals, has dwelt in cellars and slums, in the third limbo of society everywhere (le troisieme dessous, as the expressive and vivid slang of the theatres has it). For is not the world a stage? Le troisieme dessous is the lowest cellar under the stage at the Opera where the machinery is kept and men stay who work it, whence the footlights are raised, the ghosts, the blue-devils shot up from hell, and so forth.

Every word of this language is a bold metaphor, ingenious or horrible. A man's breeches are his kicks or trucks (montante, a word that need not be explained). In this language you do not sleep, you snooze, or doze (pioncer—and note how vigorously expressive the word is of the sleep of the hunted, weary, distrustful animal called a thief, which as soon as it is in safety drops—rolls—into the gulf of deep slumber so necessary under the mighty wings of suspicion always hovering over it; a fearful sleep, like that of a wild beast that can sleep, nay, and snore, and yet its ears are alert with caution).

In this idiom everything is savage. The syllables which begin or end the words are harsh and curiously startling. A woman is a trip or a moll (une largue). And it is poetical too: straw is la plume de Beauce, a farmyard feather bed. The word midnight is paraphrased by twelve leads striking—it makes one shiver! Rincer une cambriole is to "screw the shop," to rifle a room. What a feeble expression is to go to bed in comparison with "to doss" (piausser, make a new skin). What picturesque imagery! Work your dominoes (jouer des dominos) is to eat; how can men eat with the police at their heels?

And this language is always growing; it keeps pace with civilization, and is enriched with some new expression by every fresh invention. The potato, discovered and introduced by Louis XVI. and Parmentier, was at once dubbed in French slang as the pig's orange (Orange a Cochons)[the Irish have called them bog oranges]. Banknotes are invented; the "mob" at once call them Flimsies (fafiots garotes, from "Garot," the name of the cashier whose signature they bear). Flimsy! (fafiot.) Cannot you hear the rustle of the thin paper? The thousand franc-note is male flimsy (in French), the five hundred franc-note is the female; and convicts will, you may be sure, find some whimsical name for the hundred and two hundred franc-notes.

In 1790 Guillotin invented, with humane intent, the expeditious machine which solved all the difficulties involved in the problem of capital punishment. Convicts and prisoners from the hulks forthwith investigated this contrivance, standing as it did on the monarchical borderland of the old system and the frontier of modern legislation; they instantly gave it the name of l'Abbaye de Monte-a-Regret. They looked at the angle formed by the steel blade, and described its action as repeating (faucher); and when it is remembered that the hulks are called the meadow (le pre), philologists must admire the inventiveness of these horrible vocables, as Charles Nodier would have said.

The high antiquity of this kind of slang is also noteworthy. A tenth of the words are of old Romanesque origin, another tenth are the old Gaulish French of Rabelais. Effondrer, to thrash a man, to give him what for; otolondrer, to annoy or to "spur" him; cambrioler, doing anything in a room; aubert, money; Gironde, a beauty (the name of a river of Languedoc); fouillousse, a pocket—a "cly"—are all French of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The word affe, meaning life, is of the highest antiquity. From affe anything that disturbs life is called affres (a rowing or scolding), hence affreux, anything that troubles life.

About a hundred words are derived from the language of Panurge, a name symbolizing the people, for it is derived from two Greek words signifying All-working.

Science is changing the face of the world by constructing railroads. In Argot the train is le roulant Vif, the Rattler.

The name given to the head while still on the shoulders—la Sorbonne—shows the antiquity of this dialect which is mentioned by very early romance-writers, as Cervantes, the Italian story-tellers, and Aretino. In all ages the moll, the prostitute, the heroine of so many old-world romances, has been the protectress, companion, and comfort of the sharper, the thief, the pickpocket, the area-sneak, and the burglar.

Prostitution and robbery are the male and female forms of protest made by the natural state against the social state. Even philosophers, the innovators of to-day, the humanitarians with the communists and Fourierists in their train, come at last, without knowing it, to the same conclusion—prostitution and theft. The thief does not argue out questions of property, of inheritance, and social responsibility, in sophistical books; he absolutely ignores them. To him theft is appropriating his own. He does not discuss marriage; he does not complain of it; he does not insist, in printed Utopian dreams, on the mutual consent and bond of souls which can never become general; he pairs with a vehemence of which the bonds are constantly riveted by the hammer of necessity. Modern innovators write unctuous theories, long drawn, and nebulous or philanthropical romances; but the thief acts. He is as clear as a fact, as logical as a blow; and then his style!

Another thing worth noting: the world of prostitutes, thieves, and murders of the galleys and the prisons forms a population of about sixty to eighty thousand souls, men and women. Such a world is not to be disdained in a picture of modern manners and a literary reproduction of the social body. The law, the gendarmerie, and the police constitute a body almost equal in number; is not that strange? This antagonism of persons perpetually seeking and avoiding each other, and fighting a vast and highly dramatic duel, are what are sketched in this Study. It has been the same thing with thieving and public harlotry as with the stage, the police, the priesthood, and the gendarmerie. In these six walks of life the individual contracts an indelible character. He can no longer be himself. The stigmata of ordination are as immutable as those of the soldier are. And it is the same in other callings which are strongly in opposition, strong contrasts with civilization. These violent, eccentric, singular signs—sui generis—are what make the harlot, the robber, the murderer, the ticket-of-leave man, so easily recognizable by their foes, the spy and the police, to whom they are as game to the sportsman: they have a gait, a manner, a complexion, a look, a color, a smell—in short, infallible marks about them. Hence the highly-developed art of disguise which the heroes of the hulks acquire.

One word yet as to the constitution of this world apart, which the abolition of branding, the mitigation of penalties, and the silly leniency of furies are making a threatening evil. In about twenty years Paris will be beleaguered by an army of forty thousand reprieved criminals; the department of the Seine and its fifteen hundred thousand inhabitants being the only place in France where these poor wretches can be hidden. To them Paris is what the virgin forest is to beasts of prey.

The swell-mob, or more exactly, the upper class of thieves, which is the Faubourg Saint-Germain, the aristocracy of the tribe, had, in 1816, after the peace which made life hard for so many men, formed an association called les grands fanandels—the Great Pals—consisting of the most noted master-thieves and certain bold spirits at that time bereft of any means of living. This word pal means brother, friend, and comrade all in one. And these "Great Pals," the cream of the thieving fraternity, for more than twenty years were the Court of Appeal, the Institute of Learning, and the Chamber of Peers of this community. These men all had their private means, with funds in common, and a code of their own. They knew each other, and were pledged to help and succor each other in difficulties. And they were all superior to the tricks or snares of the police, had a charter of their own, passwords and signs of recognition.

From 1815 to 1819 these dukes and peers of the prison world had formed the famous association of the Ten-thousand (see le Pere Goriot), so styled by reason of an agreement in virtue of which no job was to be undertaken by which less than ten thousand francs could be got.

At that very time, in 1829-30, some memoirs were brought out in which the collective force of this association and the names of the leaders were published by a famous member of the police-force. It was terrifying to find there an army of skilled rogues, male and female; so numerous, so clever, so constantly lucky, that such thieves as Pastourel, Collonge, or Chimaux, men of fifty and sixty, were described as outlaws from society from their earliest years! What a confession of the ineptitude of justice that rogues so old should be at large!

Jacques Collin had been the cashier, not only of the "Ten-thousand," but also of the "Great Pals," the heroes of the hulks. Competent authorities admit that the hulks have always owned large sums. This curious fact is quite conceivable. Stolen goods are never recovered but in very singular cases. The condemned criminal, who can take nothing with him, is obliged to trust somebody's honesty and capacity, and to deposit his money; as in the world of honest folks, money is placed in a bank.

Long ago Bibi-Lupin, now for ten years a chief of the department of Public Safety, had been a member of the aristocracy of "Pals." His treason had resulted from offended pride; he had been constantly set aside in favor of Trompe-la-Mort's superior intelligence and prodigious strength. Hence his persistent vindictiveness against Jacques Collin. Hence, also, certain compromises between Bibi-Lupin and his old companions, which the magistrates were beginning to take seriously.

So in his desire for vengeance, to which the examining judge had given play under the necessity of identifying Jacques Collin, the chief of the "Safety" had very skilfully chosen his allies by setting la Pouraille, Fil-de-Soie, and le Biffon on the sham Spaniard—for la Pouraille and Fil-de-Soie both belonged to the "Ten-thousand," and le Biffon was a "Great Pal."

La Biffe, le Biffon's formidable trip, who to this day evades all the pursuit of the police by her skill in disguising herself as a lady, was at liberty. This woman, who successfully apes a marquise, a countess, a baroness, keeps a carriage and men-servants. This Jacques Collin in petticoats is the only woman who can compare with Asie, Jacques Collin's right hand. And, in fact, every hero of the hulks is backed up by a devoted woman. Prison records and the secret papers of the law courts will tell you this; no honest woman's love, not even that of the bigot for her spiritual director, has ever been greater than the attachment of a mistress who shares the dangers of a great criminal.

With these men a passion is almost always the first cause of their daring enterprises and murders. The excessive love which—constitutionally, as the doctors say—makes woman irresistible to them, calls every moral and physical force of these powerful natures into action. Hence the idleness which consumes their days, for excesses of passion necessitate sleep and restorative food. Hence their loathing of all work, driving these creatures to have recourse to rapid ways of getting money. And yet, the need of a living, and of high living, violent as it is, is but a trifle in comparison with the extravagance to which these generous Medors are prompted by the mistress to whom they want to give jewels and dress, and who—always greedy—love rich food. The baggage wants a shawl, the lover steals it, and the woman sees in this a proof of love.

This is how robbery begins; and robbery, if we examine the human soul through a lens, will be seen to be an almost natural instinct in man.

Robbery leads to murder, and murder leads the lover step by step to the scaffold.

Ill-regulated physical desire is therefore, in these men, if we may believe the medical faculty, at the root of seven-tenths of the crimes committed. And, indeed, the proof is always found, evident, palpable at the post-mortem examination of the criminal after his execution. And these monstrous lovers, the scarecrows of society, are adored by their mistresses. It is this female devotion, squatting faithfully at the prison gate, always eagerly balking the cunning of the examiner, and incorruptibly keeping the darkest secrets which make so many trials impenetrable mysteries.

In this, again, lies the strength as well as the weakness of the accused. In the vocabulary of a prostitute, to be honest means to break none of the laws of this attachment, to give all her money to the man who is nabbed, to look after his comforts, to be faithful to him in every way, to undertake anything for his sake. The bitterest insult one of these women can fling in the teeth of another wretched creature is to accuse her of infidelity to a lover in quod (in prison). In that case such a woman is considered to have no heart.

La Pouraille was passionately in love with a woman, as will be seen.

Fil-de-Soie, an egotistical philosopher, who thieved to provide for the future, was a good deal like Paccard, Jacques Collin's satellite, who had fled with Prudence Servien and the seven hundred and fifty thousand francs between them. He had no attachment, he condemned women, and loved no one but Fil-de-Soie.

As to le Biffon, he derived his nickname from his connection with la Biffe. (La Biffe is scavenging, rag-picking.) And these three distinguished members of la haute pegre, the aristocracy of roguery, had a reckoning to demand of Jacques Collin, accounts that were somewhat hard to bring to book.

No one but the cashier could know how many of his clients were still alive, and what each man's share would be. The mortality to which the depositors were peculiarly liable had formed a basis for Trompe-la-Mort's calculations when he resolved to embezzle the funds for Lucien's benefit. By keeping himself out of the way of the police and of his pals for nine years, Jacques Collin was almost certain to have fallen heir, by the terms of the agreement among the associates, to two-thirds of the depositors. Besides, could he not plead that he had repaid the pals who had been scragged? In fact, no one had any hold over these Great Pals. His comrades trusted him by compulsion, for the hunted life led by convicts necessitates the most delicate confidence between the gentry of this crew of savages. So Jacques Collin, a defaulter for a hundred thousand crowns, might now possibly be quit for a hundred thousand francs. At this moment, as we see, la Pouraille, one of Jacques Collin's creditors, had but ninety days to live. And la Pouraille, the possessor of a sum vastly greater, no doubt, than that placed in his pal's keeping, would probably prove easy to deal with.