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Gaol

I was curious to see the prison in Seville. Gruesome tales had been told me of its filth and horror, and the wretched condition of the prisoners; I had even heard that from the street you might see them pressing against the barred windows with arms thrust through, begging the passer-by for money or bread. MediŠval stories recurred to my mind and the clank of chains trailed through my imagination.

I arranged to be conducted by the prison doctor, and one morning soon after five set out to meet him. My guide informed me by a significant gesture that his tendencies were--bibulous, and our meeting-place was a tavern; but when we arrived they told us that don Felipe--such was his name--had been taken his morning dram and gone; however, if we went to another inn we should doubtless find him. But there we heard he had not yet arrived, he was not due till half-past five. To pass the time we drank a mouthful of aguardiente and smoked a cigarette, and eventually the medico was espied in the distance. We went towards him--a round, fat person with a red face and a redder nose, somewhat shabbily dressed.

He looked at me pointedly and said:

'I'm dry. Vengo seco.'

It was a hint not to be neglected, and we returned to the tavern where don Felipe had his nip.

'It's very good for the stomach,' he assured me.

We sallied forth together, and as we walked he told me the number of prisoners, the sort of crimes for which they were detained--ranging from man-slaughter to petty larceny--and finally, details of his own career. He was an intelligent man, and when we came to the prison door insisted on drinking my health.

The prison is an old convent, and it is a little startling to see the church fašade, with a statue of the Madonna over the central porch. At the steps a number of women stood waiting with pots and jars and handkerchiefs full of food for their relatives within; and when the doctor appeared several rushed up to ask about a father or a son that lay sick. We went in and there was a melodramatic tinkling of keys and an unlocking of heavy doors.

The male prisoners, the adults, were in the patio of the convent, where in olden days the nuns had wandered on summer evenings, watering their roses. The iron door was opened and shut behind us; there was a movement of curiosity at the sight of a stranger, and many turned to look at me. Such as had illnesses came to the doctor, and he looked at their tongues and felt their pulse, giving directions to an assistant who stood beside him with a note-book. Don Felipe was on excellent terms with his patients, laughing and joking; a malingerer asked if he could not have a little wine because his throat was sore; the doctor jeered and the man began to laugh; they bandied repartees with one another.

There were about two hundred in the patio, and really they did not seem to have so bad a time. There was one large group gathered round a man who read a newspaper aloud; it was Monday morning, and all listened intently to the account of a bull-fight on the previous day, bursting into a little cry of surprise and admiration on hearing that the matador had been caught and tossed. Others lay by a pillar playing draughts for matches, while half a dozen more eagerly watched, giving unsolicited advice with much gesticulation. The draught-board consisted of little squares drawn on the pavement with chalk, and the pieces were scraps of white and yellow paper. One man sat cross-legged by a column busily rolling cigarettes; he had piles of them by his side arranged in packets, which he sold at one penny each; it was certainly an illegal offence, because the sale of tobacco is a government monopoly, but if you cannot break the laws in prison where can you break them? Others occupied themselves by making baskets or nets. But the majority did nothing at all, standing about, sitting when they could, with the eternal cigarette between their lips; and the more energetic watched the blue smoke curl into the air. Altogether a very happy family!

Nor did they seem really very criminal, more especially as they wore no prison uniform, but their own clothes. I saw no difference between them and the people I met casually in the street. They were just very ordinary citizens, countrymen smelling of the soil, labouring men, artisans. Their misfortune had been only to make too free a use of their long curved knives or to be discovered taking something over which another had prior claims. But in Andalusia every one is potentially as criminal, which is the same as saying that these jail-birds were estimable persons whom an unkind fate and a mistaken idea of justice had separated for a little while from their wives and families.

I saw two only whose aspect was distinctly vicious. One was a tall fellow with shifty eyes, a hard thin mouth, a cruel smile, and his face was really horrible. I asked the doctor why he was there. Don Felipe, without speaking, made the peculiar motion of the fingers which signifies robbery, and the man seeing him repeated it with a leer. I have seldom seen a face that was so utterly repellent, so depraved and wicked: I could not get it out of my head, and for a long time saw before me the crafty eyes and the grinning mouth. Obviously the man was a criminal born who would start thieving as soon as he was out of prison, hopelessly and utterly corrupt. But it was curious that his character should be marked so plainly on his face; it was a danger-signal to his fellows, and one would have thought the suspicion it aroused must necessarily keep him virtuous. It was a countenance that would make a man instinctively clap his hand to his pocket.

The other was a Turk, a huge creature, with dark scowling face and prominent brows; he made a singular figure in his bright fez and baggy breeches, looking at his fellow prisoners with a frown of hate.

But the doctor had finished seeing his patients and the iron door was opened for us to go out. We went upstairs to the hospital, a long bare ward, terribly cheerless. Six men, perhaps, lay in bed, guarded by two warders; one old fellow with rheumatism groaning in agony, two others dazed and very still, with high fever. We walked round quickly, don Felipe as before mechanically looking at their tongues and feeling their pulse, speaking a word to the assistant and moving on. The windows were shut and there was a horrid stench of illness and drugs and antiseptics.

We went through long corridors to the female side, and meanwhile the assistant told the doctor that during the night a woman had been confined. Don Felipe sat down in an office to write a certificate.

'What a nuisance these women are!' he said. 'Why can't they wait till they get out of prison? How is it?'

'It was still-born.'

'Pero, hombre,' said the doctor crossly. 'Why didn't you tell me that before? Now I shall have to write another certificate. This one's no good.'

He tore it up and painfully made out a second with the slow laborious writing of a man unused to holding a pen.

Then we marched on and came to another smaller patio where the females were. They were comparatively few, not more than twenty or thirty; and when we entered a dark inner-room to see the woman who was ill they all trooped in after us--all but one. They stood round eagerly telling us of the occurrence.

'Don't make such a noise, por Dios! I can't hear myself speak,' said the doctor.

The woman was lying on her back with flushed cheeks, her eyes staring glassily. The doctor asked a question, but she did not answer. She began to cry, sobbing from utter weakness in a silent, unrestrained way. On a table near her, hidden by a cloth, lay the dead child.

We went out again into the patio. The sun was higher now and it was very warm, the blue sky shone above us without a cloud. The prisoners returned to their occupations. One old hag was doing a younger woman's hair; I noticed that even for Spain it was beautiful, very thick, curling, and black as night. The girl held a carnation in her hand to put in front of the comb when the operation was completed. Another woman suckled a baby, and several tiny children were playing about happily, while their mothers chatted to one another, knitting.

But there was one, markedly different from the others, who sat alone taking no notice of the scene. It was she who remained in the patio when the rest followed us into the sick room, a gipsy, tall and gaunt, with a skin of the darkest yellow. Her hair was not elaborately arranged as that of her companions, but plainly done, drawn back stiffly from the forehead. She sat there, erect and motionless, looking at the ground with an unnatural stare, silent. They told me she never spoke a word nor paid attention to the women in the court. She might have been entirely alone. She never altered her position, but sat there, sphinx-like, in that attitude of stony grief. She was a stranger among the rest, and her bronzed face, her silence gave a weird impression; she seemed to recall the burning deserts of the East and an endless past.

At last we came out, and the heavy iron door was closed behind us. What a relief it was to be in the street again, to see the sun and the trees, and to breathe the free air! A cart went by with a great racket, drawn by three mules, and the cries of the driver as he cracked his whip were almost musical; a train of donkeys passed; a man trotted by on a brown shaggy cob, his huge panniers filled with glowing vegetables, green and red, and in a corner was a great bunch of roses. I took long breaths of the free air, I shook myself to get rid of those prison odours.

I offered don Felipe refreshment and we repaired to a dram-shop immediately opposite. Two women were standing there.

'Ole!' said the doctor to an old toothless hag with a vicious leer. 'What are you doing here? You've not been in for some time.'

She laughed and explained that she was come to fetch her friend, a young woman, who had been released that morning. The doctor nodded to her, asking how long she had been in gaol.

'Two years and nine months,' she said.

And she began to laugh hysterically with tears streaming down her cheeks.

'I don't know what I'm doing,' she cried. 'I can't understand it.'

She looked into the street with wild, yearning eyes; everything seemed to her strange and new.

'I haven't seen a tree for nearly three years,' she sobbed.

But the hag was pressing the doctor to drink with her; he accepted without much hesitation, and gallantly proposed her health.

'What are you going to do?' he said to the younger woman, she was hardly more than a girl. 'You'd better not hang about in Seville or you'll get into trouble again.'

'Oh no,' she said, 'I'm going to my village--mi pueblo--this afternoon. I want to see my husband and my child.'

Don Felipe turned to me and asked what I thought of the Seville prison. I made some complimentary reply.

'Are English prisons like that?' he asked.

I said I did not think so.

'Are they better?'

I shrugged my shoulders.

'I'm told,' he said, 'that two years' hard labour in an English prison kills a man.'

'The English are a great nation,' I replied.

'And a humane one,' he added, with a bow and a smile.

I bade him good-morning.


William Somerset Maugham