FORTY years ago St. Malo possessed an alley known by the name of the "Ruelle Coutanchez." This alley no longer exists, having been removed for the improvements of the town.
It was a double row of houses, leaning one towards the other, and leaving between them just room enough for a narrow rivulet, which was called the street. By stretching the legs, it was possible to walk on both sides of the little stream, touching with head or elbows, as you went, the houses either on the right or the left. These old relics of mediaeval Normandy have almost a human interest. Tumble-down houses and sorcerers always go together. Their leaning stories, their over-hanging walls, their bowed penthouses, and their old thick-set irons seem like lips, chin, nose, and eyebrows. The garret window is the blind eve. The walls are the wrinkled and blotchy cheeks. The opposite houses lay their foreheads together as if they were plotting some malicious deed. All those words of ancient villainy-like cutthroat, "slit-weazand," and the like-are closely connected with architecture of this kind.
One of these houses in the alley-the largest and the most famous, or notorious-was known by the name of the Jacressade.
The Jacressade was a lodging-house for people who do not lodge. In all towns, and particularly in sea-ports, there is always found beneath the lowest stratum of society a sort of residuum-vagabonds who are more than a match for justice; rovers after adventures; chemists of the swindling order, who are always dropping their lives into the melting-pot; people in rags of every shape, and in every style of wearing them; withered fruits of roguery; bankrupt existences; consciences that have filled their schedule; men who have failed in the housebreaking trade (for the great masters of burglary move in a higher sphere) workmen and workwomen in the trade of wickedness; oddities, male and female; men in coats out at elbows; scoundrels reduced to indigence; rogues who have missed the wages of roguery; men who have been hit in the social duel; harpies who have no longer any prey; petty larceners; gueux in the double and unhappy meaning of that word. Such are the constituents of that living mass. Human nature is here reduced to something bestial. It is the refuse of the social state, heaped up in an obscure corner, where from time to time descends that dreaded broom which is known by the name of police. In St. Malo the Jacressade was the name of this corner.
It is not in dens of this sort that we find the high-class criminals-the robbers, forgers and other great products of ignorance and poverty. If murder is represented here, it is generally in the person of some coarse drunkard; in the matter of robbery, the company rarely rise higher than the mere sharper. The vagrant is there, but not the highwayman. It would not, however, be safe to trust this distinction. This last stage of vagabondage may have its extremes of scoundrelism. It was on an occasion, when catting their nets into the Epi-scie-which was in Paris what the Jacressade was in St Malo-that the police captured the notorious Lacenaire.
These lurking-places refuse nobody. To fall in the social scale has a tendency to bring men to one level. Sometimes honesty in tatters found itself there. Virtue and probity have been known before now to be brought to strange passes. We must not judge always by appearances, even in the palace or at the galleys. Public respect as well as universal reprobation, requires testing. Surprising results sometimes spring from this principle. An angel may be discovered in the stews; a pearl in the dunghill. Such sad and dazzling discoveries are not altogether unknown.
The Jacressade was rather a courtyard than a house, and more of a well than a courtyard. It had no stories looking on the street. Its facade was simply a high wall, with a low gateway. You raised the latch, pushed the gate, and were at once in the courtyard.
In the midst of this yard might be perceived a round hole, encircled with a margin of stones, and even with the ground. The yard was small, the well large. A broken pavement surrounded it.
The courtyard was square, and built on three sides only. On the side of the street was only the wall; facing you as you entered the gateway stood the house, the two wings of which formed the sides to right and left.
Any one entering there after nightfall, at his own risk and peril, would have heard a confused murmur of voices; and, if there had been moonlight or starlight enough to give shape to the obscure forms before his eyes, this is what he would have seen.
The courtyard: the well. Around the courtyard, in front of the gate, a lean-to or shed, in a sort of horse shoe form, but with square corners; a rotten gallery, with a roof of joists supported by stone pillars at unequal distances. In the centre the well; around the well, upon a litter of straw, a kind of circular chaplet, formed of the soles of boots and shoes; some trodden down at heel, some showing the toes of the wearers, some the naked heels. The feet of men, women, and children, all asleep.
Beyond these feet the eye might have distinguished, in the shadow of the shed, bodies, drooping heads, forms stretched out lazily, bundles of rags of both sexes-a promiscuous assemblage, a strange and revolting mass of life. The accommodation of this sleeping-chamber was open to all, at the rate of two sous a week. On a stormy night the rain fell upon the feet, the whirling snow settled on the bodies of those wretched sleepers.
Who were these people? The unknown. They came there at night, and departed in the morning. Creatures of this kind form part of the social fabric. Some stole in during the darkness, and paid nothing. The greater part had scarcely eaten during the day. All kinds of vice and baseness, every sort of moral infection, every species of distress were there. The same sleep settled down upon all in this bed of filth. The dreams of all these companions in misery went on side by side. A dismal meeting-place, where misery and weakness, half-sobered debauchery, weariness from long walking to and fro, with evil thoughts, in quest of bread, pallor with closed eyelids, remorse, envy, lay mingled and festering in the same miasma with faces that had the look of death, and dishevelled hair mixed with the filth and sweepings of the streets. Such was the putrid heap of life fermenting in this dismal spot. An unlucky turn of the wheel of fortune, a ship arrived on the day before, a discharge from prison, a dark night, or some other chance, had cast them here, to find a miserable shelter. Every day brought some new accumulation of such misery. Let him enter who would, sleep who could, speak who dared; for it was a place of whispers. The newcomers hastened to bury themselves in the mass, or tried to seek oblivion in sleep, since there was none in the darkness of the place. They snatched what little of themselves they could from the jaws of death. They closed their eyes in that confusion of horrors which every day renewed. They were the embodiment of misery thrown off from society, as the scum is from the sea.
It was not every one who could even get a share of the straw. More than one figure was stretched out naked upon the flags. They lay down worn out with weariness, and awoke paralysed. The well, without lid or parapet, and thirty feet in depth, gaped open night and day. Rain fell around it; filth accumulated about, and the gutters of the yard ran down and filtered through its sides. The pail for drawing the water stood by the side. Those who were thirsty drank there; some, disgusted with life, drowned themselves in it-slipped from their slumber in the filthy shed into that profounder sleep. In the year 1819 the body of a boy of fourteen years old was taken up out of this well.
To be safe in this house, it was necessary to be of the "right sort." The uninitiated were regarded with suspicion.
Did these miserable wretches, then, know each other? No; yet they scented out the genuine guest of the Jacressade.
The mistress of the house was a young and rather pretty woman, wearing a cap trimmed with ribbons. She washed herself now and then with water from the well. She had a wooden leg
At break of day the courtyard became empty. Its inmates dispersed.
An old cock and some other fowls were kept in the courtyard, where they raked among the filth of the place all day long. A long horizontal beam, supported by posts, traversed the yard-a gibbet-shaped erection, not out of keeping with the associations of the place. Sometimes, on the morrow of a rainy day, a silk dress, mudded and wet, would be seen hanging out to dry upon this beam. It belonged to the woman with the wooden leg.
Over the shed, and like it, surrounding the yard, was a story, and above this story a loft. A rotten wooden ladder, passing through a hole in the roof of the shed, conducted to this story; and up this ladder the woman would climb, sometimes staggering while its crazy rounds creaked beneath her.
The occasional lodgers, whether by the week or the night, slept in the courtyard; the regular inmates lived In the house.
Windows without a pane of glass, door-frames with no door, fireplaces without stoves-such were the chief features of the interior. You might pass from one room to the other, indifferently, by a long square aperture which had been the door, or by a triangular hole between the joists of the partitions. The fallen plaster of the ceiling lay about the floor. It was difficult to say how the old house still stood erect. The high winds indeed shook it. The lodgers ascended as they could by the worn and slippery steps of the ladder. Everything was open to the air. The wintry atmosphere was absorbed into the house, like water into a sponge. The multitude of spiders seemed alone to guarantee the place against falling to pieces immediately. There was no sign of furniture. Two or three palliasses were in the corner, their ticking torn in parts, and showing more dust than straw within. Here and there were a water pot and an earthern pipkin. A close, disagreeable odour haunted the rooms.
The windows looked out upon the square yard. The scene was like the interior of a scavenger's cart. The things, not to speak of the human beings, which lay rusting, mouldering, and putrefying there, were indescribable. The fragments seemed to fraternise together. Some fell from the walls, others from the living tenants of the place. The debris were sown with their tatters.
Besides the floating population which bivouacked nightly in the square yard, the Jacressade had three permanent lodgers-a charcoal-man, a rag-picker, and a "gold-maker." The charcoal-man and the rag-picker occupied two of the palliasses of the first story; the "gold-maker," a chemist, lodged in the loft, which was called, no one knew why, the garret. Nobody knew where the woman slept. The "gold-maker" was a poet in a small way. He inhabited a room in the roof, under the tiles-a chamber with a narrow window, and a large stone fireplace forming a gulf, in which the wind howled at will. The garret window having no frame, he had nailed across it a piece of iron sheathing, part of the wreck of a ship. This sheathing left little room for the entrance of light and much for the entrance of cold. The charcoal-man paid rent from time to time in the shape of a sack of charcoal; the rag-picker paid with a bowl of grain for the fowls every week; the "gold-maker" did not pay at all. Meanwhile the latter consumed the very house itself for fuel. He had pulled down the little woodwork which remained; and every now and then he took from the wall or the roof a lath or some scantling, to heat his crucible. Upon the partition, above the rag-picker's mattress, might have been seen two columns of figures, marked in chalk by the rag-picker himself from week to week-a column of threes and a column of fives, according as the bowl of grain had cost him three bards or five centimes. The gold-pot of the "chemist" was an old fragment of a bomb-shell, promoted by him to the dignity of a crucible, in which he mixed his ingredients. The transmutation of metals absorbed all his thoughts. He was determined before he died to revenge himself by breaking the windows of orthodox science with the real philosopher's stone. His furnace consumed a good deal of wood. The handrail of the stairs had disappeared. The house was slowly burning away. The landlady said to him, "You will leave us nothing but the shell." He mollified her by addressing her in verses.
Such was the Jacressade.
A boy of twelve, or perhaps sixteen-for he was like a dwarf, with a large wen upon his neck, and always carrying a broom in his hand-was the domestic of the place.
The habitues entered by the gateway of the courtyard. the public entered by the shop.
In the high wall, facing the street, and to the right of the entrance to the courtyard, was a square opening, serving at once as a door and a window. This was the shop. The square opening had a shutter and a frame-the only shutter in all the house which had hinges and bolts. Behind this square aperture, which was open to the street, was a little room, a compartment obtained by curtailing the sleeping shed in the courtyard. Over the door passers-by read the inscription in charcoal, "Curiosities sold here." On three boards, forming the shop front, were several china pots without ears, a Chinese parasol made of gold-beater's skin, and ornamented with figures, torn here and there, and impossible to open or shut; fragments of iron, and shapeless pieces of old pottery, and dilapidated hats and bonnets; three or four shells. some packets of old bone and metal buttons, a tobacco-box with a portrait of Marie Antoinette, and a dog's-eared volume of Boisbertrand's Algebra. Such was the stock of the shop; this assortment completed the "curiosities." The shop communicated by a back door with the yard in which was the well. It was furnished with a table and a stool. The woman with a wooden leg presided at the counter.
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