The Way to the Scaffold
By Victor Hugo (condensed from the last two chapters of “Le dernier jour d’un condamné”)
Translation by Joe Bandel
In city hall—so here I am! In God’s name!—the terrible journey is over. Down there is the place)* and those fearful people are howling in front of my window like a pack of crazy dogs, waiting for me—and laughing.
What does it matter to me that I desire to remain strong and healthy? What does it matter to me that I can see them raging between the two giant red arms of the streetlights, their black three cornered hats held up over a sea of heads? My heart stands still. I ask to give my last statement.
*(place de Grève, until 1830 the place of judgment in Paris. Today the location of de l’Hotel-de-Ville
They lead me here into city hall and send for an attorney.—I’m waiting for him. That is a win in any case.
It strikes three o’clock)* They tell me that it is time. My entire body begins to tremble, as I have every six hours, every six weeks, every six months, as if there is anything else to think of!—This end comes so unexpectedly to me.
—They lead me through a passage and push me up the stairs. They lock me in between two little iron gates on the ground floor.
)* Executions happened most often around four o’clock in the afternoon.
It is a muggy, vaulted, narrow room which is only sparsely lit by the light of the rainy day that hangs over the fog of Paris. A stool stands in the middle of the cell; they command me to sit, to sit down—I sit. At the door and along the wall stand several other men besides the priest and the constable—there are three of them. The first, the tallest and the oldest of them is fat, and has a round, coarse face. He wears a long coat and a battered three cornered hat. That is him—the executioner, the chamber servant of his Herrin Guillotine. The two others assist him. I scarcely sit down when these other two slide around behind me like cats. I suddenly feel the cold of steel and the clipping of a scissors by my ear. The carelessly cut off hair falls onto my shoulders in clumps. The one with the three cornered hat gently brushes it away. They speak in subdued voices around me—a young man stands at the window. Suddenly he asks one of the assistants, if they can be called that, what is going on. The answer to the question is: “The toilette of the convicted.”
—It will be in all of tomorrow’s newspapers. With a single move one of the assistants pulls my jacket off while the other grabs both of my hands, which are down at my sides, and pulls them around behind my back. I feel how a rope is slowly wound around my wrists and then tied. At the same time the other takes my cravat off my neck. When he sees my cambric shirt, the only rag I have left from an earlier time, he considers for a moment, but then he begins to carefully cut away the collar. I clench together at these terrifying preparations and as the cold knife touches my throat I let out a soft cry. The hand of the assistant trembles.
“Excuse me, mein Herr,” he said. “Have I hurt you?”—
The executioner’s men are such kind men.
The people outside yell even more madly. The fat one with the wine blessed ruddy face gives me a handkerchief soaked in vinegar to smell. I say as calmly as I can:
“Thank you very much, but that is not necessary. I feel alright.”
—One of the assistants kneels down on the floor and ties my feet together with a short piece of rope so that I can still take very short steps. Then the fat man throws my jacket over my back and ties the sleeves firmly together under my chin—then what still needed to be done is done
—Then the priest comes up to me with his crucifix and says, “It’s time for us to go, my son.”
The assistants grip me under the arms, I stand up and begin to go, but my steps are unsteady and weak and it seems to me as if each of my legs has two knees; they buckle so.
At that moment the two wings of the outer door open. Lunatic screaming, ice cold air and the blinding light of day press angrily against me, at where I stand in the darkness. From out of my sepulchral vault I see for one more time the thousands of bellowing heads of these people that have become wild, these heads that are piled on the stairs and balconies of the palace; on top of each other in layers like giant cairns. I have reserved my courage for this terrifying moment. I step three paces forward and appear on the threshold of the prison door.
Then the people bellow, “There he is. There he is!”
And the closest ones stand up. There is an angry applause. The joy of the people could not have been greater, even if I had been a king. The cart that is to transport me is wretched, the nag consumptive, and the driver stuck into blue overalls with red suspenders as if he is a farmer hauling vegetables from Bicêtre.
—The fat man with the three cornered hat climbs in first, one assistant follows him. They both sit down on the front seat. Then it is my turn. I climb the ladder with solid steps.
“He holds himself well,” says one Frau that stands near a constable in the procession —the priest sits by my side. They have given me the back seat and I sit toward the horse’s back. I tremble from this last attention. The entire mantle of history hangs around it. I desire to look around and see nothing other than policemen and more policemen.
Spread out everywhere is an un-viewable crowd of people; a deluge of heads across the square. A procession of mounted policemen waits for me at the barred gate of the palace. The officer gives the command and the wagon and its occupants set into motion with a jerk and push forward through the howling mob. At the moment when the cart turns toward the Pont-au-change the square trembles from the ground to the roofs. The bridge and the embankments shake from the raging of the bestial people.
A thousand throats bellow, “Hats off, hats off!”
As if the king was coming.
I laugh grimly at that and say to the priest, “They take off their hats; I take off my head.”
The flowers of the waterfront smell— today is market day. The flower girls have abandoned their flowers to honor me. Over there—several steps from the four cornered tower at the corner of the palace, are a couple of taverns whose upper stories are filled with spectators that bask in the comfort of their beautiful places. There are many women among them. Today will be a good day for the innkeeper. Tables, chairs, carts and weapons are spread around. Everything bows under the burden of the spectators. Human hucksters screech out of full throats, “Who wants to buy a place, a good place, a beautiful place?”
A nameless hatred against these animalistic people seizes me.
I could scream, “Who wants my place?”
I don’t know how it is possible, that with this fog, with this milky rain, that covers everything like a spider web, that I don’t miss seeing anything that is happening around me. Every single little thing gives me an infinite pain. Words fail to express.
In the middle of the Pont-au-Change, which despite its breadth is overflowing, through which we only with difficulty make our way, a horror seizes me and I fear to become weak—a last stupid vanity! I want to numb myself, and force myself to be blind and numb to everything that is going on around me. I only want to listen to the priest whose words devour this insane noise. I bend toward the crucifix and kiss it. I shudder once from the cold.
“You tremble with chill, my son?” the priest asks me.
“Yes, and not just with the cold.”
I began to see and hear no more. All these heads, these voices at the windows; heads at the gates; heads at the doors of the pubs; heads of the poor on the streetlamps. These blood-thirsty spectators! They all know me and I don’t know any of them. A terrible way of sorrow that is plastered and walled in with human faces! I sway like a drunkard on my seat and pay no more attention to the priest and his crucifix.
Without thinking I read, without understanding, the inscriptions over the doors of the taverns. And the cart goes on, rumbling, goes on. The general stores slide past and the signs shimmer, engraved, painted and golden. And these animal people neigh and stamp in filth. I am weak and without will and I give myself over to my fate like a sleeper to his dreams. One by one a place is cut past the general stores to the center of the square. The voices of the mob became more shrill, louder, wider and the cheers happier. The cart stops. A ladder is placed against the cart, the priest supports me. I climb down, take a step and look around before I go any further. I remain standing there as if under a spell. Between the streetlights I see something terrible . . . it is reality.
I stagger as if from a blow and say hesitantly: “I still have a statement to make. You have brought me here from the courthouse. I ask to be permitted to write out my last will and testament.”
They take the handcuffs off, but the rope remains here—right here next to me. And all that remains is below.
* * *
Someone—Judge, commissioner, magistrate or God knows who he is—has just entered this space. On my knees with lifted hands I crawl to him; I ask for mercy. With a horrible urbane smile the official asks if that is all that I have to say.
—“Mercy, mercy!” my lips murmur silently. “Mercy, if only out of pity!”
Who knows, the pardon can still come! It is so terrible to have to die so young and so terribly! How many pardons have happened at the last minute!
—and who in all the world should be pardoned if not me!
—How horrible the executioner is! Now he slips over to the official to whisper something to him—and I hear it—that the execution must take place punctually; that the hour nears; that he is responsible; that it is raining and the blade might rust.
—“Oh my God, have pity! Wait just another minute for the pardon!”
—Or I will fight—I bite!
The official and the executioner are gone. I am alone, that means alone with two policemen. Terrible people! They howl in the square like hyenas! Who knows if they will howl differently; who knows if I might still escape them—if I am rescued —if my pardon still—it is impossible that they won’t pardon me!
—The villains! I hear them on the stairs! They are coming!—My God!—four o’clock!