THE GAMIN SHOULD HAVE HIS PLACE IN THE CLASSIFICATIONS OF INDIA
This word gamin was printed for the first time, and reached popular speech through the literary tongue, in 1834. It is in a little work entitled Claude Gueux that this word made its appearance. The horror was lively. The word passed into circulation.
Claude Gueux was a poor workman, living in Paris about eight years ago, with his mistress and child. Although his education had been neglected, and he could not even read, the man was naturally clever and intelligent, and thought deeply over matters. Winter came with its attendant miseries,--want of work, want of food, want of fuel. The man, the woman, and the child were frozen and famished. The man turned thief. I know not what he stole. What signifies, as the result was the same: to the woman and child it gave three days bread and warmth; to the man, five years imprisonment. He was taken to Clairvaux,--the abbey now converted into a prison, its cells into dungeons, and the altar itself into a pillory. This is called progress.
Claude Gueux the honest workman, who turned thief from force of circumstances, had a countenance which impressed you,--a high forehead somewhat lined with care, dark hair already streaked with gray, deep-set eyes beaming with kindness, while the lower part clearly indicated firmness mingled with self-respect. He rarely spoke, yet there was a certain dignity in the man which commanded respect and obedience. A fine character, and we shall see what society made of it.
Over the prison workshop was an inspector, who rarely forgot that he was a jailer also to his subordinates, handing them the tools with one hand, and casting chains upon them with the other. A tyrant, never using even self-reasoning; with ideas against which there was no appeal; hard rather than firm, at times he could even be jocular,--doubtless a good father, a good husband, really not vicious, but , bad.
He was one of those men who never can grasp a fresh idea, who apparently fail to be moved by an emotion; yet with hatred and rage in their hearts they look like blocks of wood, heated on the one side but frozen on the other. This mans chief characteristic was obstinacy; and so proud was he of this very stubbornness that he compared himself with Napoleon,--an optical delusion, like taking the mere flicker of a candle for a star. When he had made up his mind to a thing, however absurd, he would carry out that absurd idea. How often it happens, that, when a catastrophe occurs, if we inquire into the cause we find it originated through the obstinacy of one with little ability, but having full faith in his own powers.
Such was the inspector of the prison workshop at Clairvaux,--a man of flint placed by society over others, who hoped to strike sparks out of such material; but a spark from a like source is apt to end in a conflagration.
The inspector soon singled out Claude Gueux, who had been numbered and placed in the workshop, and finding him clever, treated him well. Seeing Claude looking sad (for he was ever thinking of her he termed his wife), and being in a good humour, by way of pastime to console the prisoner he told him the woman had become one of the unfortunate sisterhood, and had been reduced to infamy; of the child nothing was known.
After a time Claude had accustomed himself to prison rule, and by his calmness of manner and a certain amount of resolution clearly marked in his face, he had acquired a great ascendancy over his companions, who so much admired him that they asked his advice, and tried in all ways to imitate him. The very expression in his eyes clearly indicated the mans character; besides, is not the eye the window to the soul, and what other result could be anticipated than that the intelligent spirit should lead men with few ideas, who yielded to the attraction as the metal does to the loadstone? In less than three months Claude was the virtual head of the workshop, and at times he almost doubted whether he was king or prisoner, being treated something like a captive pope, surrounded by his cardinals.
Such popularity ever has as its attendant hatred; and though beloved by the prisoners, Claude was detested by the jailers. To him two mens rations would have been scarcely sufficient. The inspector laughed at this, as his own appetite was large; but what would be mirth to a duke, to a prisoner would be a great misfortune. When a free man, Claude Gueux could earn his daily four-pound loaf and enjoy it; but as a prisoner he daily worked, and for his labour received one pound and a half of bread and four ounces of meat; it naturally followed that he was always hungry.
He had just finished his meagre fare, and was about to resume his labours, hoping in work to forget famine, when a weakly-looking young man came towards him, holding a knife and his untasted rations in his hand, but seemingly afraid to address him.
What do you want? said Claude, roughly.
A favour at your hands, timidly replied the young man.
What is it? said Claude.
Help me with my rations; I have more than I can eat.
For a moment Claude was taken aback, but without further ceremony he divided the food in two and at once partook of one half.
Thank you, said the young man; allow me to share my rations with you every day.
What is your name? said Claude.
Why are you here? added Claude.
So did I, said Claude.
The same scene took place daily between this man old before his time (he was only thirty-six) and the boy of twenty, who looked at the most seventeen. The feeling was more like that of father and son than one brother to another; everything created a bond of union between them,--the very toil they endured together, the fact of sleeping in the same quarters and taking exercise in the same courtyard. They were happy, for were they not all the world to each other?
The inspector of the workshop was so hated by the prisoners that he often had recourse to Claude Gueux to enforce his authority; and when a tumult was on the point of breaking out, a few words from Claude had more effect than the authority of the warders. Although the inspector was glad to avail himself of this influence, he was jealous all the same, and hated the superior prisoner with an envious and implacable feeling,--an example of might over right, all the more fearful as it was secretly nourished. But Claude cared so much for Albin that he thought little about the inspector.
One morning as th warders were going their rounds one of them summoned Albin, who was working with Claude, to go before the inspector.
What are you wanted for? said Claude.
I do not know, replied Albin, following the warder.
All day Claude looked in vain for his companion, and at night, finding him still absent, he broke though his ordinary reserve and addressed the turnkey. Is Albin ill? said he.
No, replied the man.
How is it that he has never put in an appearance today?
His quarters have been changed, was the reply.
For a moment Claude trembled, then calmly continued, Who gave the order?
Monsieur D___. This was the inspectors name.
On the following night the inspector, Monsieur D____, went his rounds as usual. Claude, who had perceived him from the distance, rose, and hastened to rasie his woollen cap and button his gray woolelen vest to the throat,--considered a mark of respect to superiors in prison discipline.
Sir, said Claude, as the inspector was about to pass him, has Albin really been quartered elsewhere?
Yes, replied the inspector.
Sir, I cannot live without him. You know the rations are insufficient for me, and Albin divided his portion with me. Could you not manage to let him resume his old place near me?
Impossible; the order cannot be revoked.
By whom was it given?
Monsieur D____, replied Claude, on you my life depends.
I never cancel an order once given.
Sir, what have I done to you?
Why, then, cried Claude, separate me from Albin?
Because I do, replied the inspector, and with that he passed on.
Claudes head sank down, like the poor caged lion deprived of his dog; but the grief, though so deeply felt, in no way changed his appetite,--he was famished. Many offered to share their rations with him, but he steadily refused, and continued his usual routine in silence,--breaking it only to ask the inspector daily, in tones of anguish mingled with rage, something between a prayer and a threat, these two words: And Albin?
The inspector simply passed on, shrugging his shoulders; but had he only observed Claude he would have seen the evident change, noticable to all present, and he would have heard these words, spoken respectfully but firmly:---
Sir, listen to me; send my companion to me. It would be wise to do so, I can assure you. Remember my words!
On Sunday he had sat for hours in the courtyard, with his head bowed in his hands, and when a prisoner called Faillette came up laughing, Claude said, I am judging some one.
On the 25th of October, 1831, as the inspector went his rounds, Claude, to draw his attention, smashed a watch-glass he had found in the passage. This had the desired effect.
It was I, said Claude. Sir, resore my comrade to me.
Impossible, was the answer.
Looking the inspector full in the face, Claude firmly added: Now, reflect! Today is the 25th of October; I give you till the 4th of November.
A warder remarked that Claude was threatening Monsieur D____, and ought at once to be locked up.
No, it is not a case of blackhole, replied the inspector, smiling disdainfully; we must be considerate with people of this stamp.
The following day Claude was again accosted by one of the prisoners named Pernot, as he was brooding in the courtyard.
Well, Claude, you are sad indeed; what are you pondering over?
I fear some evil threatens that good Monsieur D____, answered Claude.
Claude daily impressed the fact on the inspector how much Albins absence affected him, but with no result save four-and-twenty hours solitary confinement. On the 4th of November he looked round his cell for the little that remained to remind him of his former life. A pair of scissors, and an old volume of the Emile, belonging to the woman he had loved so well, the mother of his child,--how useless to a man who could neither work nor read!
As Claude walked down the old cloisters, so dishonoured by its new inmates and its fresh whitewashed walls, he noticed how earnestly the convict Ferrari was looking at the heavy iron bars that crossed the window, and he said to him: Tonight I will cut through those bars with these scissors, pointing to the pair he still held in his hand.
Ferrari laughed incredulously, and Claude joined in the mirth. During the day he worked with more than ordinary ardour, wishing to finish a straw hat, which he had been paid for in advance by a tradesman at Troyes,--M. Bressier.
Shortly before noon he made some excuse to go down into the carpenters quarters, a story below his own, at the time the warders were absent. Claude received a hearty welcome, as he was equally popular here as elsewhere.
Can any one lend me an axe? he said.
Without exacting any promises of secrecy he at once replied: To kill the inspector with tonight.