Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 15


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.


Victor Hugo