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Claude Gueux

by Victor Hugo

Claude was at once offered several; choosing the smallest, he hid it beneath his waistcoat and left. Now, there were twenty-seven prisoners present, and not one of those men betrayed him; they even refrained from talking upon the subject among themselves, waiting for the terrible event which must follow.

As Claude passed on he saw a young convict of sixteen yawning idly there, and he strongly advised him to learn how to read. Just then Faillette asked what he was hiding.

Claude answered unhestitatingly: “An axe to kill Monseiur D____ tonight; but can you see it?”

“A little,” said Faillette.

At seven o’clock the prisoners were locked in their several workshops. It was then the custom for the warders to leave them, until the inspector has been his rounds.

In Claude’s workshop a most extraordinary scene took place, the only one of its kind on record. Claude rose and addressed his companions, eighty-four in number, in the following words:--

“You all know Albin and I were like brothers. I liked him at first for sharing his rations with me, afterwards because he cared for me. Now I never have sufficient, though I spend the pittance I earn in bread. It could make no possible difference to the inspector, Monsieur D____, that we should be together; but he chose to separate us simply from a love of tormenting, for he is a bad man. I asked again and again for Albin to be sent back, without success; and when I gave him a stated time, the 4th of November, I was thrust into a dungeon. During that time I became his judge, and sentenced him to death on November the 4th. In two hours he will be here, and I warn you I intend to kill him. But have you anything to say?”

There was dead silence. Claude then continued telling his comrades, the eighty-one thieves, his ideas on the subject,--that he was reduced to a fearful extremity, and compelled by that very necessity to take the law into his own hands; that he knew full well he could not take the inspector’s life without sacrificing his own, but that as the cause was a just one he would bear the consequences, having come to the conclusion after two months’ calm reflection; that if they considered resentment alone hurried him on to such a step they were at once to say so, and to state their objections to the sentence being carried out.

One voice alone broke the silence which followed, saying, “Before killing the inspector, Claude ought to give him a chance of relenting.”

“That is but just,” said Claude, “and he shall have the benefit of the doubt.”

Claude then sorted the few things a poor prisoner is allowed, and gave them to the comrades he mostly cared for after Albin, keeping only the pair of scissors. He then embraced them all,--some not being able to withold their tears at such a moment. Claude continued calmly to converse during this last hour, and even gave way to a trick he had as a boy, of extinguishing the candle with a breath from his nose. Seeing him thus, his companions afterwards owned that they hoped he had abandoned his sinister idea. One young convict looked at him fixedly, trembling for the coming event.

“Take courage, young fellow,” said Claude, gently; “it will be but the work of a minute.”

The workshop was a long room with a door at both ends, and with windows each side overlooking the benches, thus leaving a pathway up the centre for the inspector to review the work on both sides of him. Claude had now resumed his work, -- something like Jacques Clement, who did not fail to repeat his prayers.

As the clock sounded the last quarter to nine, Claude rose and placed himself near the entrance, apparently calm. Amidst the most profound silence the clock struck nine; the door was thrown open, and the inspector came in as usual alone, looking quite jovial and self-satisfied, passing rapidly along, tossing his head at one, grinding words out to another, little heeding the eyes fixed so fiercely upon him. Just then he heard Claude’s step, and turning quickly round said, --

“What are you doing here? Why are you not in your place?” just as he would have spoken to a dog.

Claude answered respectfully, “I wish to speak to you, sir.”

“On what subject?”



“Always the same,” said Claude.

“So then,” replied the inspector, walking along, “you have not had enough with twenty-four hours in the blackhole.”

Claude, following him closely, replied: “Sir, return my companion to me!”


“Sir,” continued Claude, in a voice which would have moved Satan, I“ implore you to send Albin back to me; you will then see how I will work. You are free, and it would matter but little to you; you do not know the feeling of having only one friend. To me it is everything, encircled by the prison walls. You can come and go at your pleasure; I have but Albin. Pray let him come back to me! You know well he shared his food with me. What can it matter to you that a man named Claude Gueux should be in this hall, having another by his side called Albin? You have but to say ‘Yes,’ nothing more. Sir, my good sir, I implore you, in the name of Heaven, to grant my prayer!”

Claude, overcome with emotion, waited for an answer.

“Impossible!” replied the inspector impatiently; “I will not recall my words. Now go, you annoyance!” And with that he hurried on towards the outer door, amidst the breathless silence maintained by eighty-one thieves.

Claude, following and touching the inspector, gently asked:“ Let me at least know why I am condemned to death. Why did you separate us?”

“I have already answered you: because I chose,” replied the inspector.

With that he was about to lift the latch, when Claude raised the axe, and without one cry the inspector fell to the ground, with his skull completely cloven from three heavy blows dealt with the rapidity of lightning. A fourth completely disfigured his face, and Claude, in his mad fury, gave another and a useless blow ; for the inspector was dead.

Claude, throwing the axe aside, cried out, “Now for the other!”

The other was himself; and taking the scissors, his wife’s, he plunged them into his breast. But the blade was short, and the chest was deep, and vainly he strove to give the fatal blow. At last, covered with blood he fell fainting across the dead. Which of the two would be considered the victim?

When Claude regained consciousness he was in bed, surrounded by every care and covered with bandages. Near him were Sisters of Charity, and a recorder ready to take down his deposition, who with much interest inquired how he was. Claude had lost a great deal of blood; but the scissors had done him a bad turn, inflicting wounds not one of which was dangerous: the only mortal blows he had struck were on the body of Monsieur D___. Then the interrogatory commenced.

“Did you kill the inspector of the prison workshops at Clairvaux?”

“Yes,” was the reply.

“Why did you do so?”

“Because I did.”

Claude’s wounds now assumed a more serious aspect, and he was prostrated with a fever which threatened his life. November, December, January, February passed, in nursing and preparations, and Claude in turn was visited by doctor and judge,--the one to restore him to health, the other to glean the evidence needful to send him to the scaffold.

On the 16th of March, 1832, perfectly cured, Claude appeared in court at Troyes, to answer the charge brought against him. His appearance impressed the court favorably; he had been shaved and stood bareheaded, but still clad in prison garb. The court was well guarded by a strong military guard, to keep the witnesses within bounds, as they were all convicts. But an unexpected dificulty occurred; not one of these men would give evidence; neither questions nor threats availed to make them break their silence, until Claude requested them to do so. Then they in turn gave a faithful account of the terrible event; and if one, from forgetfullness or affection for the accused, failed to relate the whole facts, Claude supplied the deficiency. At one time the women’s tears fell fast.

The usher now called the convict Albin. He came in trembling with emotion and sobbing painfully, and threw himself into Claude’s arms. Turning to the Public Prosecutor, Claude said, --

“Here is a convict who gives his food to the hungry,” and stooping, he kissed Albin’s hand.

All the witnesses having been examined, the counsel for the prosecution then rose to address the court. “Gentlemen of the jury, society would be utterly put to confusion if a public prosecution did not condemn great culprits like him, who, etc.”

After the long address by the prosecution, Claude’s counsel rose. Then followed the usual pleading for and against, which ever takes place at the criminal court.

Claude in his turn gave evidence, and every one was astonished at his intelligence; there appeared far more of the orator about this poor workman than the assassin. In a clear and straightforward way he detailed the facts as they were, -- standing proudly there, resolved to tell the whole truth. At times the crowd was carried away by his eloquence. This man, who could not read, would grasp the most difficult points of argument, yet treat the judges with all due deference. Once Claude lost his temper, when the counsel for the prosecution stated that he had assassinated the inspector without provocation.

“What!” said Claude, “I had no provocation? Indeed! A drunkard strikes me, -- I kill him; then you would allow there was provocation, and the penalty of death would be changed for that of the galleys. But a man who wounds me in every way during four years, humiliates me for four years, taunts me daily, hourly, for four years, and heaps every insult on my head,--what follows? You consider I have had no provocation! I had a wife for whom I robbed,--he tortured me about her. I had a child for whom I robbed,--he taunted me about this child. I was hungry, a friend shared his bread with me,--he took away my friend. I begged him to return my friend to me,--he cast me into a dungeon. I told him how much I suffered,--he said it wearied him to listen. What then would you have me do? I took his life; and you look upon me as a monster for killing this man, and you decapitate me: then do so.”

Provocation such as this the law fails to acknowledge, because the blows have no marks to show.

The judge then summed up the case in a clear and impartial manner,--dwelling on the life Claude had led, living openly with an improper character; then he had robbed, and ended by being a murderer. All this was true. Before the jury retired, the judge asked Claude if he had any questions to ask, or anything to say.

“Very little,” said Claude. “ I am a murderer, I am a thief; but I ask you gentlemen of the jury, why did I kill? Why did I steal?”

The jury retired for a quarter of an hour, and according to the judgment of these twelve countrymen--gentlemen of the jury, as they are styled--Claude Gueux was condemned to death. At the very outset several of them were much impressed with the name of Gueux (vagabond), and that influenced their decision.

When the verdit was pronounced, Claude simply said: “Very well; but there are two questions these gentlemen have not answered. Why did this man steal? What made him a murderer?”

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