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are tortuous; those of a prison as well as those of a man. Here and
there, sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left, spaces in the
wall, square and closed by large iron gratings, gave glimpses of flights
of stairs, some descending and some ascending.

They reached a closed door; it opened. They passed through, and it
closed again. Then they came to a second door, which admitted them; then
to a third, which also turned on its hinges. These doors seemed to open
and shut of themselves. No one was to be seen. While the corridor
contracted, the roof grew lower, until at length it was impossible to
stand upright. Moisture exuded from the wall. Drops of water fell from
the vault. The slabs that paved the corridor were clammy as an
intestine. The diffused pallor that served as light became more and
more a pall. Air was deficient, and, what was singularly ominous, the
passage was a descent.

Close observation was necessary to perceive that there was such a
descent. In darkness a gentle declivity is portentous. Nothing is more
fearful than the vague evils to which we are led by imperceptible

It is awful to descend into unknown depths.

How long had they proceeded thus? Gwynplaine could not tell.

Moments passed under such crushing agony seem immeasurably prolonged.

Suddenly they halted.

The darkness was intense.

The corridor widened somewhat. Gwynplaine heard close to him a noise of
which only a Chinese gong could give an idea; something like a blow
struck against the diaphragm of the abyss. It was the wapentake striking
his wand against a sheet of iron.

That sheet of iron was a door.

Not a door on hinges, but a door which was raised and let down.

Something like a portcullis.

There was a sound of creaking in a groove, and Gwynplaine was suddenly
face to face with a bit of square light. The sheet of metal had just
been raised into a slit in the vault, like the door of a mouse-trap.

An opening had appeared.

The light was not daylight, but glimmer; but on the dilated eyeballs of
Gwynplaine the pale and sudden ray struck like a flash of lightning.

It was some time before he could see anything. To see with dazzled eyes
is as difficult as to see in darkness.

At length, by degrees, the pupil of his eye became proportioned to the
light, just as it had been proportioned to the darkness, and he was able
to distinguish objects. The light, which at first had seemed too bright,
settled into its proper hue and became livid. He cast a glance into the
yawning space before him, and what he saw was terrible.

At his feet were about twenty steps, steep, narrow, worn, almost
perpendicular, without balustrade on either side, a sort of stone ridge
cut out from the side of a wall into stairs, entering and leading into
a very deep cell. They reached to the bottom.

The cell was round, roofed by an ogee vault with a low arch, from the
fault of level in the top stone of the frieze, a displacement common to
cells under heavy edifices.

The kind of hole acting as a door, which the sheet of iron had just
revealed, and on which the stairs abutted, was formed in the vault, so
that the eye looked down from it as into a well.

The cell was large, and if it was the bottom of a well, it must have
been a cyclopean one. The idea that the old word "_cul-de-basse-fosse_"
awakens in the mind can only be applied to it if it were a lair of wild

The cell was neither flagged nor paved. The bottom was of that cold,
moist earth peculiar to deep places.

In the midst of the cell, four low and disproportioned columns sustained
a porch heavily ogival, of which the four mouldings united in the
interior of the porch, something like the inside of a mitre. This porch,
similar to the pinnacles under which sarcophagi were formerly placed,
rose nearly to the top of the vault, and made a sort of central chamber
in the cavern, if that could be called a chamber which had only pillars
in place of walls.

From the key of the arch hung a brass lamp, round and barred like the
window of a prison. This lamp threw around it - on the pillars, on the
vault, on the circular wall which was seen dimly behind the pillars - a
wan light, cut by bars of shadow.

This was the light which had at first dazzled Gwynplaine; now it threw
out only a confused redness.

There was no other light in the cell - neither window, nor door, nor

Between the four pillars, exactly below the lamp, in the spot where
there was most light, a pale and terrible form lay on the ground.

It was lying on its back; a head was visible, of which the eyes were
shut; a body, of which the chest was a shapeless mass; four limbs
belonging to the body, in the position of the cross of Saint Andrew,
were drawn towards the four pillars by four chains fastened to each foot
and each hand.

These chains were fastened to an iron ring at the base of each column.
The form was held immovable, in the horrible position of being
quartered, and had the icy look of a livid corpse.

It was naked. It was a man.

Gwynplaine, as if petrified, stood at the top of the stairs, looking
down. Suddenly he heard a rattle in the throat.

The corpse was alive.

Close to the spectre, in one of the ogives of the door, on each side of
a great seat, which stood on a large flat stone, stood two men swathed
in long black cloaks; and on the seat an old man was sitting, dressed in
a red robe - wan, motionless, and ominous, holding a bunch of roses in
his hand.

The bunch of roses would have enlightened any one less ignorant that
Gwynplaine. The right of judging with a nosegay in his hand implied the
holder to be a magistrate, at once royal and municipal. The Lord Mayor
of London still keeps up the custom. To assist the deliberations of the
judges was the function of the earliest roses of the season.

The old man seated on the bench was the sheriff of the county of Surrey.

His was the majestic rigidity of a Roman dignitary.

The bench was the only seat in the cell.

By the side of it was a table covered with papers and books, on which
lay the long, white wand of the sheriff. The men standing by the side of
the sheriff were two doctors, one of medicine, the other of law; the
latter recognizable by the Serjeant's coif over his wig. Both wore black
robes - one of the shape worn by judges, the other by doctors.

Men of these kinds wear mourning for the deaths of which they are the

Behind the sheriff, at the edge of the flat stone under the seat, was
crouched - with a writing-table near to him, a bundle of papers on his
knees, and a sheet of parchment on the bundle - a secretary, in a round
wig, with a pen in his hand, in the attitude of a man ready to write.

This secretary was of the class called keeper of the bag, as was shown
by a bag at his feet.

These bags, in former times employed in law processes, were termed bags
of justice.

With folded arms, leaning against a pillar, was a man entirely dressed
in leather, the hangman's assistant.

These men seemed as if they had been fixed by enchantment in their
funereal postures round the chained man. None of them spoke or moved.

There brooded over all a fearful calm.

What Gwynplaine saw was a torture chamber. There were many such in

The crypt of Beauchamp Tower long served this purpose, as did also the
cell in the Lollards' prison. A place of this nature is still to be seen
in London, called "the Vaults of Lady Place." In this last-mentioned
chamber there is a grate for the purpose of heating the irons.

All the prisons of King John's time (and Southwark Jail was one) had
their chambers of torture.

The scene which is about to follow was in those days a frequent one in
England, and might even, by criminal process, be carried out to-day,
since the same laws are still unrepealed. England offers the curious
sight of a barbarous code living on the best terms with liberty. We
confess that they make an excellent family party.

Some distrust, however, might not be undesirable. In the case of a
crisis, a return to the penal code would not be impossible. English
legislation is a tamed tiger with a velvet paw, but the claws are still
there. Cut the claws of the law, and you will do well. Law almost
ignores right. On one side is penalty, on the other humanity.
Philosophers protest; but it will take some time yet before the justice
of man is assimilated to the justice of God.

Respect for the law: that is the English phrase. In England they
venerate so many laws, that they never repeal any. They save themselves
from the consequences of their veneration by never putting them into
execution. An old law falls into disuse like an old woman, and they
never think of killing either one or the other. They cease to make use
of them; that is all. Both are at liberty to consider themselves still
young and beautiful. They may fancy that they are as they were. This
politeness is called respect.

Norman custom is very wrinkled. That does not prevent many an English
judge casting sheep's eyes at her. They stick amorously to an antiquated
atrocity, so long as it is Norman. What can be more savage than the
gibbet? In 1867 a man was sentenced to be cut into four quarters and
offered to a woman - the Queen.[18]

Still, torture was never practised in England. History asserts this as
a fact. The assurance of history is wonderful.

Matthew of Westminster mentions that the "Saxon law, very clement and
kind," did not punish criminals by death; and adds that "it limited
itself to cutting off the nose and scooping out the eyes." That was all!

Gwynplaine, scared and haggard, stood at the top of the steps, trembling
in every limb. He shuddered from head to foot. He tried to remember what
crime he had committed. To the silence of the wapentake had succeeded
the vision of torture to be endured. It was a step, indeed, forward; but
a tragic one. He saw the dark enigma of the law under the power of which
he felt himself increasing in obscurity.

The human form lying on the earth rattled in its throat again.

Gwynplaine felt some one touching him gently on his shoulder.

It was the wapentake.

Gwynplaine knew that meant that he was to descend.

He obeyed.

He descended the stairs step by step. They were very narrow, each eight
or nine inches in height. There was no hand-rail. The descent required
caution. Two steps behind Gwynplaine followed the wapentake, holding up
his iron weapon; and at the same interval behind the wapentake, the
justice of the quorum.

As he descended the steps, Gwynplaine felt an indescribable extinction
of hope. There was death in each step. In each one that he descended
there died a ray of the light within him. Growing paler and paler, he
reached the bottom of the stairs.

The larva lying chained to the four pillars still rattled in its throat.

A voice in the shadow said, -


It was the sheriff addressing Gwynplaine.

Gwynplaine took a step forward.

"Closer," said the sheriff.

The justice of the quorum murmured in the ear of Gwynplaine, so gravely
that there was solemnity in the whisper, "You are before the sheriff of
the county of Surrey."

Gwynplaine advanced towards the victim extended in the centre of the
cell. The wapentake and the justice of the quorum remained where they
were, allowing Gwynplaine to advance alone.

When Gwynplaine reached the spot under the porch, close to that
miserable thing which he had hitherto perceived only from a distance,
but which was a living man, his fear rose to terror. The man who was
chained there was quite naked, except for that rag so hideously modest,
which might be called the vineleaf of punishment, the _succingulum_ of
the Romans, and the _christipannus_ of the Goths, of which the old
Gallic jargon made _cripagne_. Christ wore but that shred on the cross.

The terror-stricken sufferer whom Gwynplaine now saw seemed a man of
about fifty or sixty years of age. He was bald. Grizzly hairs of beard
bristled on his chin. His eyes were closed, his mouth open. Every tooth
was to be seen. His thin and bony face was like a death's-head. His arms
and legs were fastened by chains to the four stone pillars in the shape
of the letter X. He had on his breast and belly a plate of iron, and on
this iron five or six large stones were laid. His rattle was at times a
sigh, at times a roar.

The sheriff, still holding his bunch of roses, took from the table with
the hand which was free his white wand, and standing up said, "Obedience
to her Majesty."

Then he replaced the wand upon the table.

Then in words long-drawn as a knell, without a gesture, and immovable as
the sufferer, the sheriff, raising his voice, said, -

"Man, who liest here bound in chains, listen for the last time to the
voice of justice; you have been taken from your dungeon and brought to
this jail. Legally summoned in the usual forms, _formaliis verbis
pressus_; not regarding to lectures and communications which have been
made, and which will now be repeated, to you; inspired by a bad and
perverse spirit of tenacity, you have preserved silence, and refused to
answer the judge. This is a detestable licence, which constitutes, among
deeds punishable by cashlit, the crime and misdemeanour of overseness."

The serjeant of the coif on the right of the sheriff interrupted him,
and said, with an indifference indescribably lugubrious in its effect,
"_Overhernessa_. Laws of Alfred and of Godrun, chapter the sixth."

The sheriff resumed.

"The law is respected by all except by scoundrels who infest the woods
where the hinds bear young."

Like one clock striking after another, the serjeant said, -

"_Qui faciunt vastum in foresta ubi damoe solent founinare_."

"He who refuses to answer the magistrate," said the sheriff, "is
suspected of every vice. He is reputed capable of every evil."

The serjeant interposed.

"_Prodigus, devorator, profusus, salax, ruffianus, ebriosus, luxuriosus,
simulator, consumptor patrimonii, elluo, ambro, et gluto_."

"Every vice," said the sheriff, "means every crime. He who confesses
nothing, confesses everything. He who holds his peace before the
questions of the judge is in fact a liar and a parricide."

"_Mendax et parricida_," said the serjeant.

The sheriff said, -

"Man, it is not permitted to absent oneself by silence. To pretend
contumaciousness is a wound given to the law. It is like Diomede
wounding a goddess. Taciturnity before a judge is a form of rebellion.
Treason to justice is high treason. Nothing is more hateful or rash. He
who resists interrogation steals truth. The law has provided for this.
For such cases, the English have always enjoyed the right of the foss,
the fork, and chains."

"_Anglica Charta_, year 1088," said the serjeant. Then with the same
mechanical gravity he added, "_Ferrum, et fossam, et furcas cum aliis

The sheriff continued, -

"Man! Forasmuch as you have not chosen to break silence, though of sound
mind and having full knowledge in respect of the subject concerning
which justice demands an answer, and forasmuch as you are diabolically
refractory, you have necessarily been put to torture, and you have been,
by the terms of the criminal statutes, tried by the '_Peine forte et
dure_.' This is what has been done to you, for the law requires that I
should fully inform you. You have been brought to this dungeon. You have
been stripped of your clothes. You have been laid on your back naked on
the ground, your limbs have been stretched and tied to the four pillars
of the law; a sheet of iron has been placed on your chest, and as many
stones as you can bear have been heaped on your belly, 'and more,' says
the law."

"_Plusque_," affirmed the serjeant.

The sheriff continued, -

"In this situation, and before prolonging the torture, a second summons
to answer and to speak has been made you by me, sheriff of the county of
Surrey, and you have satanically kept silent, though under torture,
chains, shackles, fetters, and irons."

"_Attachiamenta legalia_," said the serjeant.

"On your refusal and contumacy," said the sheriff, "it being right that
the obstinacy of the law should equal the obstinacy of the criminal, the
proof has been continued according to the edicts and texts. The first
day you were given nothing to eat or drink."

"_Hoc est superjejunare_," said the serjeant.

There was silence, the awful hiss of the man's breathing was heard from
under the heap of stones.

The serjeant-at-law completed his quotation.

"_Adde augmentum abstinentiæ ciborum diminutione. Consuetudo
brittanica_, art. 504."

The two men, the sheriff and the serjeant, alternated. Nothing could be
more dreary than their imperturbable monotony. The mournful voice
responded to the ominous voice; it might be said that the priest and the
deacon of punishment were celebrating the savage mass of the law.

The sheriff resumed, -

"On the first day you were given nothing to eat or drink. On the second
day you were given food, but nothing to drink. Between your teeth were
thrust three mouthfuls of barley bread. On the third day they gave you
to drink, but nothing to eat. They poured into your mouth at three
different times, and in three different glasses, a pint of water taken
from the common sewer of the prison. The fourth day is come. It is
to-day. Now, if you do not answer, you will be left here till you die.
Justice wills it."

The Serjeant, ready with his reply, appeared.

"_Mors rei homagium est bonæ legi_."

"And while you feel yourself dying miserably," resumed the sheriff, "no
one will attend to you, even when the blood rushes from your throat,
your chin, and your armpits, and every pore, from the mouth to the

"_A throtabolla_," said the Serjeant, "_et pabu et subhircis et a
grugno usque ad crupponum_."

The sheriff continued, -

"Man, attend to me, because the consequences concern you. If you
renounce your execrable silence, and if you confess, you will only be
hanged, and you will have a right to the meldefeoh, which is a sum of

"_Damnum confitens_," said the Serjeant, "_habeat le meldefeoh. Leges
Inæ_, chapter the twentieth."

"Which sum," insisted the sheriff, "shall be paid in doitkins, suskins,
and galihalpens, the only case in which this money is to pass, according
to the terms of the statute of abolition, in the third of Henry V., and
you will have the right and enjoyment of _scortum ante mortem_, and then
be hanged on the gibbet. Such are the advantages of confession. Does it
please you to answer to justice?"

The sheriff ceased and waited.

The prisoner lay motionless.

The sheriff resumed, -

"Man, silence is a refuge in which there is more risk than safety. The
obstinate man is damnable and vicious. He who is silent before justice
is a felon to the crown. Do not persist in this unfilial disobedience.
Think of her Majesty. Do not oppose our gracious queen. When I speak to
you, answer her; be a loyal subject."

The patient rattled in the throat.

The sheriff continued, -

"So, after the seventy-two hours of the proof, here we are at the fourth
day. Man, this is the decisive day. The fourth day has been fixed by the
law for the confrontation."

"_Quarta die, frontem ad frontem adduce_," growled the Serjeant.

"The wisdom of the law," continued the sheriff, "has chosen this last
hour to hold what our ancestors called 'judgment by mortal cold,' seeing
that it is the moment when men are believed on their yes or their no."

The serjeant on the right confirmed his words.

"_Judicium pro frodmortell, quod homines credendi sint per suum ya et
per suum no_. Charter of King Adelstan, volume the first, page one
hundred and sixty-three."

There was a moment's pause; then the sheriff bent his stern face towards
the prisoner.

"Man, who art lying there on the ground - "

He paused.

"Man," he cried, "do you hear me?"

The man did not move.

"In the name of the law," said the sheriff, "open your eyes."

The man's lids remained closed.

The sheriff turned to the doctor, who was standing on his left.

"Doctor, give your diagnostic."

"_Probe, da diagnosticum_," said the serjeant.

The doctor came down with magisterial stiffness, approached the man,
leant over him, put his ear close to the mouth of the sufferer, felt the
pulse at the wrist, the armpit, and the thigh, then rose again.

"Well?" said the sheriff.

"He can still hear," said the doctor.

"Can he see?" inquired the sheriff.

The doctor answered, "He can see."

On a sign from the sheriff, the justice of the quorum and the wapentake
advanced. The wapentake placed himself near the head of the patient. The
justice of the quorum stood behind Gwynplaine.

The doctor retired a step behind the pillars.

Then the sheriff, raising the bunch of roses as a priest about to
sprinkle holy water, called to the prisoner in a loud voice, and became

"O wretched man, speak! The law supplicates before she exterminates you.
You, who feign to be mute, remember how mute is the tomb. You, who
appear deaf, remember that damnation is more deaf. Think of the death
which is worse than your present state. Repent! You are about to be left
alone in this cell. Listen! you who are my likeness; for I am a man!
Listen, my brother, because I am a Christian! Listen, my son, because I
am an old man! Look at me; for I am the master of your sufferings, and I
am about to become terrible. The terrors of the law make up the majesty
of the judge. Believe that I myself tremble before myself. My own power
alarms me. Do not drive me to extremities. I am filled by the holy
malice of chastisement. Feel, then, wretched man, the salutary and
honest fear of justice, and obey me. The hour of confrontation is come,
and you must answer. Do not harden yourself in resistance. Do not that
which will be irrevocable. Think that your end belongs to me. Half man,
half corpse, listen! At least, let it not be your determination to
expire here, exhausted for hours, days, and weeks, by frightful agonies
of hunger and foulness, under the weight of those stones, alone in this
cell, deserted, forgotten, annihilated, left as food for the rats and
the weasels, gnawed by creatures of darkness while the world comes and
goes, buys and sells, whilst carriages roll in the streets above your
head. Unless you would continue to draw painful breath without remission
in the depths of this despair - grinding your teeth, weeping,
blaspheming - without a doctor to appease the anguish of your wounds,
without a priest to offer a divine draught of water to your soul. Oh! if
only that you may not feel the frightful froth of the sepulchre ooze
slowly from your lips, I adjure and conjure you to hear me. I call you
to your own aid. Have pity on yourself. Do what is asked of you. Give
way to justice. Open your eyes, and see if you recognize this man!"

The prisoner neither turned his head nor lifted his eyelids.

The sheriff cast a glance first at the justice of the quorum and then at
the wapentake.

The justice of the quorum, taking Gwynplaine's hat and mantle, put his
hands on his shoulders and placed him in the light by the side of the
chained man. The face of Gwynplaine stood out clearly from the
surrounding shadow in its strange relief.

At the same time, the wapentake bent down, took the man's temples
between his hands, turned the inert head towards Gwynplaine, and with
his thumbs and his first fingers lifted the closed eyelids.

The prisoner saw Gwynplaine. Then, raising his head voluntarily, and
opening his eyes wide, he looked at him.

He quivered as much as a man can quiver with a mountain on his breast,
and then cried out, -

"'Tis he! Yes; 'tis he!"

And he burst into a horrible laugh.

"'Tis he!" he repeated.

Then his head fell back on the ground, and he closed his eyes again.

"Registrar, take that down," said the justice.

Gwynplaine, though terrified, had, up to that moment, preserved a calm
exterior. The cry of the prisoner, "'Tis he!" overwhelmed him
completely. The words, "Registrar, take that down!" froze him. It seemed
to him that a scoundrel had dragged him to his fate without his being
able to guess why, and that the man's unintelligible confession was
closing round him like the clasp of an iron collar. He fancied himself
side by side with him in the posts of the same pillory. Gwynplaine lost
his footing in his terror, and protested. He began to stammer incoherent
words in the deep distress of an innocent man, and quivering, terrified,
lost, uttered the first random outcries that rose to his mind, and words

Online LibraryVictor HugoThe Man Who Laughs → online text (page 31 of 48)