Besides the misdeeds, the robberies, the shares after ambushes, and the twilight exploitation of the barriers of Paris, Babet, Claquesous, and Gueulemer possessed yet another means of gain. They had ideal lovers.
This needs explanation.
This book is made to say everything. A novel, but a history as well. From the point of view of human history, it would be incomplete if it did not show everything full-on, and if certain aspects of this deep and gloomy life were missing from it.
The black slave trade upsets us with good reason, we examine that wound, and we do good. But let us lay bare another ulcer, perhaps more painful: the trade of white women.
Here is one of the unusual facts which are linked to the poignant disorder of our civilization, and which characterize it. Every prison has a prisoner who is called the draftsman. Professions flourish under lock and key. These professions, peculiar to the insides of prisons, are the coconut-seller, the scarf-seller, the writer, the lawyer, the carcaniau or the usurer, the hut-dweller, and the barker. The draftsman takes his place within these local and special professions, somewhere between the writer and the lawyer.
To be a draftsman, must one know how to draw? Not at all. The end of a bench to sit down, the corner of a wall to lean against, a lead pencil, a cardboard box tied together with braided thread, a little pole with a needle at the point, a bit of India ink or sepia, a bit of Prussian blue and a bit of vermilion in three old cracked beechwood spoons, is all that’s necessary; to know how to draw is superfluous. Thieves like illuminators as children do, and tattoos as savages do. The draftsman, by means of his three spoons, satisfies the first need, and with his needle he satisfies the second. He is paid with a ration of wine.
Now, this is what happens: Thus-and-such prisoners lack everything, or simply want to live more easily. They form a group, go to find the draftsman, offer him their pitcher or their mess-kit, bring him a sheet of paper, and order a bouquet. In the bouquet there must be as many flowers as there are prisoners in the group. If there are three of them, there are three flowers. Each flower is marked with a number, or, if they prefer, decorated with a digit, which is the prisoner’s prison number.
Once the bouquet has been made, thanks to the elusive correspondences from prison to prison which no police can prevent, they send it to Saint-Lazare. Saint-Lazare is the women’s prison, and there, where there are women, there is pity. The bouquet circulates from hand to hand among the unfortunate creatures whom the police hold in administrative detention at Saint-Lazare; and, after a few days, the infallible secret postal service lets the senders know that Palmyre chose the tuberose, that Fanny preferred the azalea, and that Seraphine adopted the geranium. This mournful handkerchief is never thrown into the seraglio without being picked up.
From that day forth, the three bandits have three servants who are Palmyre, Fanny, and Seraphine. Administrative detentions are relatively short. The women leave prison before the men. And what do they do? They feed them. In the noble style, they are providence; in the energetic style, they are milk-cows.
Pity turns itself into love. The female heart has these dark transplants. These women say: I am married. And indeed, they are married. By whom? By the flower. To whom? To the abyss. They are the fiancées of the unknown. Intoxicated and enthusiastic fiancées. Pale Sulamites of dreams and mist. When the known is so odious, how not to love the unknown?
In these nocturnal regions, and with the winds of dispersion that blow upon them, a meeting is almost impossible. They dream of each other. The woman will probably never see the man. Is he young? Is he old? Is he beautiful? Is he ugly? She knows nothing. She is ignorant of him. She adores him. And it’s because she doesn’t know him that she loves him. Idolatry is born of mystery.
This floating woman wants a tie. This desperate woman needs a duty. The abyss, amidst its foam, throws her one; she accepts it. She devotes herself to it. This mysterious bandit changed into a heliotrope or an iris becomes a religion for her. She weds him in front of the night. She takes a thousand little wifely cares for him; poor for herself, she is rich for him; she overwhelms this scum with delicacies. She is faithful to him with all the fidelity that she can still have. Corruption clears the way for the incorruptible. The woman will never fall short of this love. Immaterial love, pure ether, subtle as the breath of springtime, solid as bronze.
A flower has done all that. What a well is the human heart, and what vertigo when one looks in it! Here is the cloaca. What is it dreaming of? Of perfume. A prostitute loves a thief through a lily. What diver of human thought will reach the bottom of this? Who will go in depth into the immense need for flowers that springs forth from the mud? These unfortunate women have strange equilibriums within themselves that console them and reassure them. A rose is the counterweight of a shame.
That is where those loves, all filled with dreams, come from. This thief is idolized by that woman. She has never seen his face, she doesn’t know his name; she dreams of him in the smell of a jasmine or a carnation. Gardens, the May sunshine, birds in their nests, exquisite whiteness, radiant flowering, cases of daphnes and orange-blossoms, velvet petals where the golden bumblebee alights, the sacred odors of revival, balms, incense, springs, lawns, are mingled from then on with the bandit. The divine smile of nature penetrates and illuminates him.
This desperate aspiration towards the lost paradise, this deformed dream of beauty, is no less tenacious for the man. He also turns towards the woman; and his preoccupation becomes foolish and persists, even when the horrible shadow of the two red posts is projected on the window of his cell. The day before his execution, Delaport, the leader of the Trappes band, dressed in a straitjacket, asked the passing convict Cogniard across the cellar window of the condemned man’s room, “Were there pretty women in the parlor this morning?” The condemned Avril1 (what a name!), from the back of the same room, willed his entire fortune–five francs–to a detained woman he had glimpsed in the women’s courtyard from far away, so that she could buy herself a fashionable scarf.
Between the beggar and the tramp, reveries build God knows what bridge of Sighs. The muck of the sidewalk coos at the grate of the cell. There is a pastoral idyll between the prison shackle and the stained white stocking of the crossroads. The street-corner Aspasia inhales and exhales with the heart of the wood-corner Alcibiades.
You laugh? You are wrong. It is terrible.
1 Lacenaire’s accomplice.