LOVE IN PRISON.
BESIDES misdeeds, robberies, the division of spoils after
an ambuscade, and the twilight exploitation of the barriers
of Paris, footpads, burglars, and gaol-birds generally have
another industry: they have ideal loves.
This requires explanation.
The trade in negro slaves moves us, and with good reason;
we examine this social sore, and we do well. But let
us also learn to lay bare another ulcer, which is more
painful, perhaps: the traffic in white women.
Here is one of the singular things connected with and
characteristic of this poignant disorder of our civilization:
Every gaol contains a prisoner who is known as the "artist."
All kinds of trades and professions peculiar to prisons
develop behind the bars. There is the vendor of
liquorice-water, the vendor of scarfs, the writer, the advocate, the
usurer, the hut-maker, and the barker. The artist takes
rank among these local and peculiar professions between
the writer and the advocate.
To be an artist is it necessary to know how to draw? By
no means. A bit of a bench to sit upon, a wall to lean
against, a lead pencil, a bit of pasteboard, a needle stuck
in a handle made out of a piece of wood, a little Indian
ink or sepia, a little Prussian blue, and a little vermilion in
three cracked beechwood spoons,--this is all that is
requisite; a knowledge of drawing is superfluous. Thieves are
as fond of colouring as children are, and as fond of tattooing
as are savages. The artist by means of his three spoons
satisfies the first of these needs, and by means of his needle
the second. His remuneration is a "nip" of wine.
The result is this:
Some prisoners, say, lack everything, or are simply
desirous of living more comfortably. They combine, wait
upon the artist, offer him their glasses of wine or their bowls
of soup, hand him a sheet of paper and order of him a
bouquet. In the bouquet there must be as many flowers
as there are prisoners in the group. If there be three
prisoners, there must be three flowers. Each flower bears
a figure, or, if preferred, a number, which number is that
of the prisoner.
The bouquet when painted is sent, through the mysterious
means of communication between the various prisons that
the police are powerless to prevent, to Saint Lazare. Saint
Lazare is the women's prison, and where there are women
there also is pity. The bouquet circulates from hand to
hand among the unfortunate creatures that the police
detain administratively at Saint Lazare; and in a few days
the infallible secret post apprises those who sent the
bouquet that Palmyre has chosen the tuberose, that Fanny
prefers the azalea, and that Seraphine has adopted the
geranium. Never is this lugubrious handkerchief thrown
into the seraglio without being picked up.
Thenceforward the three bandits have three servants
whose names are Palmyre, Fanny, and Seraphine.
Administrative detentions are relatively of short duration.
These women are released from prison before the men.
And what do they do? They support them. In elegant
phraseology they are providences; in plain language they
Pity has been transformed into love. The heart of woman
is susceptible of such sombre graftings. These women say:
"I am married." They are married indeed. By whom?
By the flower. With whom? With the abyss. They are
fiancées of the unknown. Enraptured and enthusiastic
fiancées. Pale Sulamites of fancy and fog. When the
known is so odious, how can they help loving the unknown?
In these nocturnal regions and with the winds of
dispersion that blow, meetings are almost impossible. The
lovers see each other in dreams. In all probability the
woman will never set eyes on the man. Is he young? Is
he old? Is he handsome? Is he ugly? She does not
know; she knows nothing about him. She adores him.
And it is because she does not know him that she loves
him. Idolatry is born of mystery.
This woman, drifting aimlessly on life's tide, yearns for
something to cling to, a tie to bind her, a duty to perform.
The pit from amid its scum throws it to her; she accepts
it and devotes herself to it. This mysterious bandit,
transformed into heliotrope or iris, becomes a religion to her.
She espouses him in the presence of night. She has a
thousand little wifely attentions for him; poor for herself,
she is rich for him; she whelms this manure with her delicate
solicitude. She is faithful to him with all the fidelity
of which she is still capable; the incorruptible emanates
from the corruptible. Never does this woman betray her
love. It is an immaterial, pure, ethereal love, subtile as the
breath of spring, solid as brass.
A flower has done all this. What a well is the human
heart, and how giddy it makes one to peer into it! Lo!
the cloaca. Of what is it thinking? Of perfume. A
prostitute loves a thief through a lily. What plunger into
human thought could reach the bottom of this? Who shall
fathom this immense yearning for flowers that springs from
mud? In the secret self of these hapless women is a
strange equilibrium that consoles and reassures them. A
rose counterbalances an act of shame.
Hence these amours based on and sustained by illusion.
This thief is idolized by this girl. She has not seen his face,
she does not know his name; she sees him in visions induced
by the perfume of jessamine or of pinks. Henceforward
flower-gardens, the May sunshine, the birds in their nests,
exquisite tints, radiant blossoms, boxes of orange trees and
daphne odora, velvet petals upon which golden bees alight,
the sacred odours of spring-tide, balms, incense, purling
brooks, and soft green grass are associated with this bandit.
The divine smile of nature penetrates and illumines him.
This desperate aspiring to paradise lost, this deformed
dream of the beautiful, is not less tenacious on the part of
the man. He turns towards the woman; and this preoccupation,
become insensate, persists even when the dreadful
shadow of the two red posts of the guillotine is thrown
upon the window of his cell. The day before his execution
Delaporte, chief of the Trappes band, who was wearing
the strait-jacket, asked of the convict Cogniard, whom,
through the grating in the door of the condemned cell,
he saw passing by: "Are there any pretty women in the
visitors' parlor this morning?" Another condemned man,
Avril (what a name!), in this same cell, bequeathed all
that he possessed--five francs--to a female prisoner whom
he had seen at a distance in the women's yard, "in order
that she may buy herself a fichu a la mode."
Between the male and female wretch dreams build a
Bridge of Sighs, as it were. The mire of the gutter
dallies with the door of a prison cell. The Aspasia of the
street-corner aspires and respires with the heart of the
Alcibiades who waylays the passer-by at the corner of a wood.
You laugh? You should not. It is a terrible thing.
The murderer is a flower for the courtesan. The prostitute
is the Clytia of the assassin sun. The eye of the woman
damned languourously seeks Satan among the myrtles.
What is this phenomenon? It is the need of the ideal.
A sublime and awful need.
A terrible thing, I say.
Is it a disease? Is it a remedy? Both. This noble
yearning is at the same time and for the same beings a
chastisement and a reward; a voluptuousness full of
expiation; a chastisement for faults committed, a recompense
for sorrows borne! None may escape it. It is a hunger of
angels felt by demons. Saint Theresa experiences it,
Messalina also. This need of the immaterial is the most deeply
rooted of all needs. One must have bread; but before
bread, one must have the ideal. One is a thief, one is a
street-walker--all the more reason. The more one drinks
of the darkness of night the more is one thirsty for the
light of dawn. Schinderhannes becomes a cornflower,
Poulailler a violet. Hence these sinisterly ideal weddings.
And then, what happens?
What I have just said.
Cloaca, but abyss. Here the human heart opens partly,
disclosing unimaginable depths. Astarte becomes platonic.
The miracle of the transformation of monsters by love is
being accomplished. Hell is being gilded. The vulture
is being metamorphosed into a bluebird. Horror ends in the
pastoral. You think you are at Vouglans's and
Parent-Duchâtelet's; you are at Longus's. Another step and you
will stumble into Berquin's. Strange indeed is it to
encounter Daphnis and Chloe in the Forest of Bondy!
The dark Saint Martin Canal, into which the footpad
pushes the passer-by with his elbow as he snatches his
victim's watch, traverses the Tender and empties itself into
the Lignon. Poulmann begs a ribbon bow; one is tempted
to present a shepherdess's crook to Papavoine. Through
the straw of the sabot one sees gossamer wings appearing
on horrible heels. The miracle of the roses is performed
for Goton. All fatalities combined have for result a flower.
A vague Rambouillet Palace is superposed upon the forbidding
silhouette of the Salpêtrière. The leprous wall of
evil, suddenly covered with blossoms, affords a pendant to
the wreath of Juliet. The sonnets of Petrarch, that flight
of the ideal which soars in the shadow of souls, venture
through the twilight towards this abjection and suffering,
attracted by one knows not what obscure affinity, even as
a swarm of bees is sometimes seen humming over a dungheap
from which arises, perceptible to the bees alone and
mingling with the miasms, the perfume of a hidden flower.
The gemoniae are Elysian. The chimerical thread of celestial
unions floats 'neath the darkest vault of the human
Erebus and binds despairing hearts to hearts that are
monstrous. Manon through the infinite sends to Cartouche a
smile ineffable as that with which Everallin entranced Fingal.
From one pole of misery to the other, from one gehenna to
another, from the galleys to the brothel, tenebrous
mouths wildly exchange the kiss of azure.
It is night. The monstrous ditch of Clamart opens.
From it arises a miasm, a phosphorescent glow. It shines
and flickers in two separate tarts; it takes shape, the
head rejoins the body, it is a phantom; the phantom
gazes into the darkness with wild, baleful eyes, rises, grows
bigger and blue, hovers for an instant and then speeds away
to the zenith to open the door of the palace of the sun
where butterflies flit from flower to flower and angels
flit from star to star.
In all these strange, concordant phenomena appears the
inadmissibility of the principle that is all of man. The
mysterious marriage which we have just related, marriage
of servitude with captivity, exaggerates the ideal from the
very fact that it is weighed down by all the most hideous
burdens of destiny. A frightful combination! It is the
From it rises a miasm, a phosphorescent glow. It shines
meeting of these two redoubtable words in which human
existence is summed up: enjoy and suffer.
Alas! And how can we prevent this cry from escaping
us? For these hapless ones, enjoy, laugh, sing, please, and
love exist, persist; but there is a death-rattle in sing, a
grating sound in laugh, putrefaction in enjoy, there are
ashes in please, there is night in love. All these joys are
attached to their destiny by coffin-nails.
What does that matter? They thirst for these lugubrious,
chimerical glimpses of light that are full of dreams.
What is tobacco, that is so precious and so dear to the
prisoner? It is a dream. "Put me in the dungeon," said
a convict, "but give me some tobacco." In other words:
"Throw me into a pit, but give me a palace." Press the
prostitute and the bandit, mix Tartarus and Avernus, stir
the fatal vat of social mire, pile all the deformities of
matter together, and what issues therefrom? The immaterial.
The ideal is the Greek fire of the gutter. It burns there.
Its brightness in the impure water dazzles the thinker
and touches his heart. Nini Lassive stirs and brightens
with Fiesehi's bilets-doux that sombre lamp of Vesta which
is in the heart of every woman, and which is as
inextinguishable in that of the courtesan as in that of the
Carmelite. This is what explains the word "virgin," accorded
by the Bible equally to the foolish virgin and to the wise
That was so yesterday, it is so to-day. Here again the
surface has changed, the bottom remains the same. The
frank harshness of the Middle Ages has been somewhat
softened in our times. Ribald is pronounced light o' love;
Toinon answers to the name of Olympia or Imperia;
Thomasse-la-Maraude is called Mme. de Saint Alphonse.
The caterpillar was real, the butterfly is false; that is the
only change. Clout has become chiffon.
Regnier used to say "sows "; we say "fillies."
Other fashions; same manners.
The foolish virgin is lugubriously immutable.
Whosoever witnesses this kind of anguish witnesses the
extreme of human misfortune.
Dark zones are these. Baleful night bursts and spreads
o'er them. Evil accumulated dissolves in misfortune upon
them, they are swept with blasts of despair by the tempest
of fatalities, there a downpour of trials and sorrows streams
upon dishevelled heads in the darkness; squalls, hail, a
hurricane of distress, swirl and whirl back and forth
athwart them; it rains, rains without cease: it rains
horror, it rains vice, it rains crime, it rains the blackness of
night; yet we must explore this obscurity, and in the
sombre storm the mind essays a difficult flight, the flight of
a wet bird, as it were.
There is always a vague, spectral dread in these low
regions where hell penetrates; they are so little in the
human order and so disproportionate that they create
phantoms. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a legend
should be connected with this sinister bouquet offered by
Bicêtre to La Salpêtrière or by La Force to Saint Lazare;
it is related at night in the cells and wards after the
keepers have gone their rounds.
It was shortly after the murder of the money-changer
Joseph. A bouquet was sent from La Force to a woman's
prison, Saint Lazare or the Madelonnettes. In this
bouquet was a sprig of white lilac which one of the women
A month or two elapsed; the woman was released from
prison. She was extremely enamoured, through the white
lilac, of the unknown master she had given to herself. She
began to perform for him her strange function of sister,
mother, and mystic spouse, ignorant of his name, knowing
only his prison number. All her miserable savings,
religiously deposited with the clerk of the prison, went to
this man. In order the better to affiance herself to him,
she took advantage of the advent of spring to cull a sprig
of real lilac in the fields. This sprig of lilac, attached by
a piece of sky-blue ribbon to the head of his bed, formed
a pendant to a sprig of consecrated box, an ornament which
these poor desolate alcoves never lack. The lilac withered
This woman, like all Paris, had heard of the affair of
the Palais-Royal and of the two Italians, Malagutti and
Ratta, arrested for the murder of the money-changer.
She thought little about the tragedy, which did not concern
her, and lived only in her white lilac. This lilac was
all in all to her; she thought only of doing her "duty"
One bright, sunny day she was seated in her room, sewing
some garment or other for her sorry evening toilet.
Now and then she looked up from her work at the lilac
that hung at the head of the bed. At one of these
moments while her gaze was fixed upon the sprig of faded
flower the clock struck four.
Then she fancied she saw an extraordinary thing.
A sort of crimson pearl oozed from the extremity of the
stalk of the flower, grew larger, and dripped on to the
white sheet of the bed.
It was a spot of blood.
That day, at that very hour, Ratta and Malagutti were
It was evident that the white lilac was one of these two.
But which one?
The hapless girl became insane and had to be confined
in La Salpêtrière. She died there. From morn to night,
and from night to morn, she would gibber: "I am Mme.
Thus are these sombre hearts.
Prostitution is an Isis whose final veil none has raised.
There is a sphinx in this gloomy odalisk of the frightful
Sultan Everybody. None has solved its enigma. It is
Nakedness masked. A terrible spectacle!
Alas! in all that we have just recounted man is abominable,
woman is touching.
How many hapless ones have been driven to their fall!
The abyss is the friend of dreams. Fallen, as we have
said, their lamentable hearts have no other resource than
What caused their ruin was another dream, the dreadful
dream of riches; nightmare of glory, of azure, and ecstasy
which weighs upon the chest of the poor; flourish of
trumpets heard in the gehenna, with the triumph of the
fortunate appearing resplendent in the immense night;
prodigious overture full of dawn! Carriages roll, gold falls
in showers, laces rustle.
Why should I not have this, too? Formidable thought!
This gleam from the sinister vent-hole dazzled them; this
puff of the sombre vapour inebriated them, and they were
lost, and they were rich.
Wealth is a fatal distant light; woman flies frantically
towards it. This mirror catches this lark.
Wherefore they have been rich. They, too, have had
their day of enchantment, their minute of fête, their
They have had that fever which is fatal to modesty.
They have drained the sonorous cup that is full of
nothingness. They have drunk of the madness of forgetfulness.
What a flattering hope! What temptation! To do nothing
and have everything; a]as! and also to have nothing,
not even one's own self. To be slave-flesh, to be beauty
for sale, a woman fallen to a thing! They have dreamed
and they have had--which is the same thing, complete
possession being but a dream--mansions, carriages, servants in
livery, suppers joyous with laughter, the house of gold,
silk, velvet, diamonds, pearls, life giddy with
Oh! how much better is the innocence of those poor little
barefooted ones on the shore of the sea, who hear at
nightfall the tinkling of the cracked bells of the goats on the
There was a disastrous morrow to these brief, perfidious
joys that they had savoured. The word love signified
hatred. The invisible doubles the visible, and it is
lugubrious. Those who shared their raptures, those to whom
they gave all, received all and accepted nothing. They--the
fallen ones--sowed their seed in ashes. They were
deserted even as they were being embraced. Abandonment
sniggered behind the mask of the kiss.
And now, what are they to do? They must perforce
continue to love.
Oh! if they could, the unhappy creatures, if they could
put from them their hearts, their dreams, harden themselves
with a hardness that could not be softened, be forever cold
and passionless, tear out their entrails, and, since they are
filth, become monsters! If they could no longer think! If
they could ignore the flower, efface the star, stop up the
mouth of the pit, close heaven! They would at least no
longer suffer. But no. They have a right to marriage, they
have a right to the heart, they have a right to torture, they
have a right to the ideal. No chilling of their hearts can put
out the internal fire. However cold they may be they burn.
This, we have said, is at once their misery and their crown.
This sublimeness combines with their abjection to overwhelm
them and raise them up. Whether they will or not,
the inextinguishable does not become extinguished. Illusion
is untamable. Nothing is more invincible than
dreams, and man is almost made up of dreams. Nature
will not agree to be insolvable. One must contemplate,
aspire, love. If need be marble will set the example. The
statue becomes a woman rather than the woman a statue.
The sewer is a sanctuary in spite of itself. It is
unhealthy, there is vitiated air in it, but the irresistible
phenomenon is none the less accomplished; all the holy
generosities bloom livid in this cave. Cynicism and the
secret despair of pity are driven back by ecstasy, the
magnificences of kindness shine through infamy; this orphan
creature feels herself to be wife, sister, mother; and this
fraternity which has no family, and this maternity which
has no children, and this adoration which has no altar, she
casts into the outer darkness. Some one marries her.
Who? The man in the gloom. She sees on her finger the
ring made of the mysterious gold of dreams. And she
sobs. Torrents of tears well from her eyes. Sombre delights!
And at the same time, let us repeat it, she suffers
unheard-of tortures. She does not belong to him to whom
she has given herself. Everybody takes her away again.
The brutal public hand holds the wretched creature and
will not let her go. She fain would flee. Flee whither?
From whom? From you, herself, above all from him whom
she loves, the funereal ideal man. She cannot.
Thus, and these are extreme afflictions, this hapless
wight expiates, and her expiation is brought upon her by
her grandeur. Whatever she may do, she has to love. She
is condemned to the light. She has to condole, she has to
succour, she has to devote herself, she has to be kind. A
woman who has lost her modesty, fain would know love
no more; impossible. The refluxes of the heart are as
inevitable as those of the sea; the lights of the heart are as
fixed as those of the night.
There is within us that which we can never lose. Abnegation,
sacrifice, tenderness, enthusiasm, all these rays
turn against the woman within her inmost self and attack
and burn her. All these virtues remain to avenge themselves
upon her. When she would have been a wife, she is
a slave. Hers is the hopeless, thankless task of lulling a
brigand in the blue nebulousness of her illusions and of
decking Mandrin with a starry rag. She is the sister of
charity of crime. She loves, alas! She endures her
inadmissible divinity; she is magnanimous and thrills at so
being. She is happy with a horrible happiness. She enters
backwards into indignant Eden.
We do not sufficiently reflect upon this that is within us
and cannot be lost.
Prostitution, vice, crime, what matters!
Night may become as black as it likes, the spark is still
there. However low you go there is light. Light in the
vagabond, light in the mendicant, light in the thief, light
in the street-walker. The deeper you go the more the
miraculous light persists in showing itself.
Every heart has its pearl, which is the same for the heart
gutter and the heart ocean--love.
No mire can dissolve this particle of God.
Wherefore, there, at the extreme of gloom, of despondency,
of chill-heartedness and abandonment; in this obscurity,
in this putrefaction, in these gaols, in these dark
paths, in this shipwreck; beneath the lowest layer of the
heap of miseries, under the bog of public disdain which
is ice and night; behind the eddying of those frightful
snowflakes the judges, the gendarmes, the warders and the
executioners for the bandit, the passers-by for the
prostitute, which cross each other, innumerable, in the dull grey
mist that for these wretches replace the sun; beneath these
pitiless fatalities; beneath this bewildering maze of vaults,
some of granite, the others of hatred; at the deepest depths
of horror; in the midst of asphyxiation; at the bottom of
the chaos of all possible blacknesses; under the frightful
thickness of a deluge composed of expectorations, there
where all is extinct, where all is dead, something moves
and shines. What is it? A flame.
And what flame?
O adorable prodigy!
Love, the ideal, is found even in the Pit.
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