The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xv.

Mazas

The police-vans, escorted as far as Mazas by Lancers, found another squadron of Lancers ready to receive them at Mazas. The Representatives descended from the vehicle one by one. The officer commanding the Lancers stood by the door, and watched them pass with a dull curiosity.

Mazas, which had taken the place of the prison of La Force, now pulled down, is a lofty reddish building, close to the terminus of the Lyons Railway, and stands on the waste land of the Faubourg St. Antoine. From a distance the building appears as though built of bricks, but on closer examination it is seen to be constructed of flints set in cement. Six large detached buildings, three stories high, all radiating from a rotunda which serves as the common centre, and touching each other at the starting-point, separated by courtyards which grow broader in proportion as the buildings spread out, pierced with a thousand little dormer windows which give light to the cells, surrounded by a high wall, and presenting from a bird’s-eye point of view the drape of a fan — such is Mazas. From the rotunda which forms the centre, springs a sort of minaret, which is the alarm-tower. The ground floor is a round room, which serves as the registrar’s office. On the first story is a chapel where a single priest says mass for all; and the observatory, where a single attendant keeps watch over all the doors of all the galleries at the same time. Each building is termed a “division.” The courtyards are intersected by high walls into a multitude of little oblong walks.

As each Representative descended from the vehicle he was conducted into the rotunda where the registry office was situated. There his name was taken down, and in exchange for his name he was assigned a number. Whether the prisoner be a thief or a legislator, such is always the rule in this prison; the coup d’état reduced all to a footing of equality. As soon as a Representative was registered and numbered, he was ordered to “file off.” They said to him, “Go upstairs,” or “Go on;” and they announced him at the end of the corridor to which he was allotted by calling out, “Receive number So-and-So.” The jailer in that particular corridor answered, “Send him on.” The prisoner mounted alone, went straight on, and on his arrival found the jailer standing near an open door. The jailer said, “Here it is, sir.” The prisoner entered, the jailer shut the door, and they passed on to another.

The coup d’état acted in a very different manner towards the various Representatives. Those whom it desired to conciliate, the men of the Bight, were placed in Vincennes; those whom it detested, the men of the Left, were placed in Mazas. Those at Vincennes had the quarters of M. Montpensier, which were expressly reopened for them; an excellent dinner, eaten in company; wax candles, fire, and the smiles and bows of the governor, General Courtigis.

This is how it treated those at Mazas.

A police-van deposited them at the prison. They were transferred from one box to another. At Mazas a clerk registered them, weighed them, measured them, and entered them into the jail book as convicts. Having passed through the office, each of them was conducted along a gallery shrouded in darkness, through a long damp vault to a narrow door which was suddenly opened. This reached, a jailer pushed the Representative in by the shoulders, and the door was shut.

The Representative, thus immured, found himself in a little, long, narrow, dark room. It is this which the prudent language of modern legislation terms a “cell.” Here the full daylight of a December noon only produced a dusky twilight. At one end there was a door, with a little grating; at the other, close to the ceiling, at a height of ten or twelve feet, there was a loophole with a fluted glass window. This window dimmed the eye, and prevented it from seeing the blue or gray of the sky, or from distinguishing the cloud from the sun’s ray, and invested the wan daylight of winter with an indescribable uncertainty. It was even less than a dim light, it was a turbid light. The inventors of this fluted window succeeded in making the heavens squint.

After a few moments the prisoner began to distinguish objects confusedly, and this is what he found: White-washed walls here and there turned green by various exhalations; in one corner a round hole guarded by iron bars, and exhaling a disgusting smell; in another corner a slab turning upon a hinge like the bracket seat of a fiacre, and thus capable of being used as a table; no bed; a straw-bottomed chair; under foot a brick floor. Gloom was the first impression; cold was the second. There, then, the prisoner found himself, alone, chilled, in this semi-darkness, being able to walk up and down the space of eight square feet like a caged wolf, or to remain seated on his chair like an idiot at Bicêtre.

In this situation an ex-Republican of the Eve, who had become a member of the majority, and on occasions sided somewhat with the Bonapartists, M. Emile Leroux, who had, moreover, been thrown into Mazas by mistake, having doubtless been taken for some other Leroux, began to weep with rage. Three, four, five hours thus passed away. In the meanwhile they had not eaten since the morning; some of them, in the excitement caused by the coup d’état had not even breakfasted. Hunger came upon them. Were they to be forgotten there? No; a bell rang in the prison, the grating of the door opened, and an arm held out to the prisoner a pewter porringer and a piece of bread.

The prisoner greedily seized the bread and the porringer. The bread was black and sticky; the porringer contained a sort of thick water, warm and reddish. Nothing can be compared to the smell of this “soup.” As for the bread, it only smelt of mouldiness.

However great their hunger, most of the prisoners during the first moment threw down their bread on the floor, and emptied the porringer down the hole with the iron bars.

Nevertheless the stomach craved, the hours passed by, they picked up the bread, and ended by eating it. One prisoner went so far as to pick up the porringer and to attempt to wipe out the bottom with his bread, which he afterwards devoured. Subsequently, this prisoner, a Representative set at liberty in exile, described to me this dietary, and said to me, “A hungry stomach has no nose.”

Meanwhile there was absolute solitude and profound silence. However, in the course of a few hours, M. Emile Leroux — he himself has told the fact to M. Versigny — heard on the other side of the wall on his right a sort of curious knocking, spaced out and intermittent at irregular intervals. He listened, and almost at the same moment on the other side of the wall to his left a similar rapping responded. M. Emile Leroux, enraptured — what a pleasure it was to hear a noise of some kind! — thought of his colleagues, prisoners like himself, and cried out in a tremendous voice, “Oh, oh! you are there also, you fellows!” He had scarcely uttered this sentence when the door of his cell was opened with a creaking of hinges and bolts; a man — the jailer — appeared in a great rage, and said to him —

“Hold your tongue!”

The Representative of the People, somewhat bewildered, asked for an explanation.

“Hold your tongue,” replied the jailer, “or I will pitch you into a dungeon.”

This jailer spoke to the prisoner as the coup d’état spoke to the nation.

M. Emile Leroux, with his persistent parliamentary habits, nevertheless attempted to insist.

“What!” said he, “can I not answer the signals which two of my colleagues are making to me?”

“Two of your colleagues, indeed,” answered the jailer, “they are two thieves.” And he shut the door, shouting with laughter.

They were, in fact, two thieves, between whom M. Emile Leroux was, not crucified, but locked up.

The Mazas prison is so ingeniously built that the least word can be heard from one cell to another. Consequently there is no isolation, notwithstanding the cellular system. Thence this rigorous silence imposed by the perfect and cruel logic of the rules. What do the thieves do? They have invented a telegraphic system of raps, and the rules gain nothing by their stringency. M. Emile Leroux had simply interrupted a conversation which had been begun.

“Don’t interfere with our friendly patter,” cried out his thief neighbor, who for this exclamation was thrown into the dungeon.

Such was the life of the Representatives at Mazas. Moreover, as they were in secret confinement, not a book, not a sheet of paper, not a pen, not even an hour’s exercise in the courtyard was allowed to them.

The thieves also go to Mazas, as we have seen.

But those who know a trade are permitted to work; those who know how to read are supplied with books; those who know how to write are granted a desk and paper; all are permitted the hour’s exercise required by the laws of health and authorized by the rules.

The Representatives were allowed nothing whatever. Isolation, close confinement, silence, darkness, cold, “the amount of ennui which engenders madness,” as Linguet has said when speaking of the Bastille.

To remain seated on a chair all day long, with arms and legs crossed: such was the situation. But the bed! Could they lie down?

No.

There was no bed.

At eight o’clock in the evening the jailer came into the cell, and reached down, and removed something which was rolled up on a plank near the ceiling. This “something” was a hammock.

The hammock having been fixed, hooked up, and spread out, the jailer wished his prisoner “Good-night.”

There was a blanket on the hammock, sometimes a mattress some two inches thick. The prisoner, wrapt in this covering, tried to sleep, and only succeeded in shivering.

But on the morrow he could at least remain lying down all day in his hammock?

Not at all.

At seven o’clock in the morning the jailer came in, wished the Representative “Good-morning,” made him get up, and rolled up the hammock on its shelf near the ceiling.

But in this case could not the prisoner take down the authorized hammock, unroll it, hook it up, and lie down again?

Yes, he could. But then there was the dungeon.

This was the routine. The hammock for the night, the chair for the day.

Let us be just, however. Some obtained beds, amongst others MM. Thiers and Roger (du Nord). M. Grévy did not have one.

Mazas is a model prison of progress; it is certain that Mazas is preferable to the piombi of Venice, and to the under-water dungeon of the Châtelet. Theoretical philanthropy has built Mazas. Nevertheless, as has been seen, Mazas leaves plenty to be desired. Let us acknowledge that from a certain point of view the temporary solitary confinement of the law-makers at Mazas does not displease us. There was perhaps something of Providence in the coup d’état. Providence, in placing the Legislators at Mazas, has performed an act of good education. Eat of your own cooking; it is not a bad thing that those who own prisons should try them.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38