Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
A Morning at La Roquette
By Donald Grant Mitchell (Ik Marvel) (1822–1908)
 
[Seven Stories. 1864.]

I HAD never witnessed an execution; had never cared to witness one. But I wished to look once more on the face of Emile Roque.
  1
  The executions in Paris take place without public announcement, and usually at daybreak, upon the square fronting the great prison of La Roquette. No order is issued until a late hour on the preceding evening, when the state executioner is directed to have the guillotine brought at midnight to the prison square, and a corps of soldiery is detailed for special service (unmentioned) in that quarter of the city. My only chance of witnessing the scene was in arranging with one of the small wine-merchants, who keep open house in that neighborhood until after midnight, to dispatch a messenger to me whenever he should see preparations commenced.  2
  This arrangement I effected; and on the 22d of March I was roused from sleep at a little before one in the morning by a bearded man, who had felt his way up the long flight of stairs to my rooms, and informed me that the guillotine had arrived before the prison of Roquette.  3
  My thought flashed on the instant to the figure of Emile as I had seen him before the Shepherdesses of Watteau—as I had seen him before the picture of the Shipwreck. I dressed hurriedly, and groped my way below. The night was dark and excessively cold. A little sleet had fallen, which crumpled under my feet as I made my way toward the quay. Arrived there, not a cab was to be found at the usual stand; so I pushed on across the river, and under the archway of the palace of the Louvre,—casting my eye toward that wing of the great building where I had first seen the face which I was shortly to look on for the last time on earth.  4
  Finding no cabs in the square before the palace, I went on through the dark streets of St. Anne and Grammont, until I reached the Boulevard. A few voitures de remise were opposite the Café Foy. I appealed to the drivers of two of them in vain, and only succeeded by a bribe in inducing a third to drive me to the Place de la Roquette. It is a long way from the centre of Paris, under the shadow almost of Père la Chaise. I tried to keep some reckoning of the streets through which we passed, but I could not. Sometimes my eye fell upon what seemed a familiar corner, but in a moment all was strange again. The lamps appeared to me to burn dimly; the houses along the way grew smaller and smaller. From time to time, I saw a wine-shop still open; but not a soul was moving on the streets with the exception of, here and there, a brace of sergents de ville. At length we seemed to have passed out of the range even of the city patrol, and I was beginning to entertain very unpleasant suspicions of the cabman, and of the quarter into which he might be taking me at that dismal hour of the night, when he drew up his horse before a little wine-shop, which I soon recognized as the one where I had left my order for the dispatch of the night’s messenger.  5
  I knew now that the guillotine was near.  6
  As I alighted I could see, away to my right, the dim outline of the prison looming against the night sky, with not a single light in its gratings. The broad square before it was sheeted over with sleet, and the leafless trees that girdled it round stood ghost-like in the snow. Through the branches, and not far from the prison gates, I could see, in the gray light (for it was now hard upon three o’clock), a knot of persons collected around a framework of timber, which I knew must be the guillotine.  7
  I made my way there, the frozen surface crumpling under my steps. The workmen had just finished their arrangements. Two of the city police were there, to preserve order, and to prevent too near an approach of the loiterers from the wine-shops—who may have been, perhaps, at this hour, a dozen in number.  8
  I could pass near enough to observe fully the construction of the machine. There was, first, a broad platform, perhaps fifteen feet square, supported by movable trestle-work, and elevated some six or seven feet from the ground. A flight of plank steps led up to this, broad enough for three to walk upon abreast. Immediately before the centre of these steps, upon the platform, was stretched what seemed a trough of plank; and from the farther end of this trough rose two strong uprights of timber, perhaps ten feet in height. These were connected at the top by a slight framework; and immediately below this, by the light of a solitary street-lamp which flickered near by, I could see the glistening of the knife. Beside the trough-like box was placed a long willow basket: its shape explained to me its purpose At the end of the trough, and beyond the upright timbers, was placed a tub: with a shudder, I recognized its purpose also.  9
  The prison gates were only a few rods distant from the steps to the scaffold, and directly opposite them. They were still closed and dark.  10
  The execution, I learned, was to take place at six. A few loiterers, mostly in blouses, came up from time to time to join the group about the scaffold.  11
  By four o’clock there was the sound of tramping feet, one or two quick words of command, and presently a battalion of the Municipal Guard, without drum-beat, marched in at the lower extremity of the square, approached the scaffold, and, having stacked their arms, loitered with the rest.  12
  Lights now began to appear at the windows of the prison. A new corps of police came up and cleared a wider space around the guillotine. A cold gray light stole slowly over the eastern sky.  13
  By five o’clock the battalion of the Guards had formed a hedge of bayonets from either side of the prison doors, extending beyond and inclosing the scaffold. A squadron of mounted men had also come upon the ground, and was drawn up in line, a short distance on one side. Two officials appeared now upon the scaffold, and gave trial to the knife. They let slip the cord or chain which held it to its place, and the knife fell with a quick, sharp clang, that I thought must have reached to ears within the walls of the prison. Twice more they made their trial, and twice more I heard the clang.  14
  Meantime people were gathering. Market-women bound for the city lingered at sight of the unusual spectacle, and a hundred or more soldiers from a neighboring barrack had now joined the crowd of lookers-on. A few women from the near houses had brought their children; and a half-dozen boys had climbed into the trees for a better view.  15
  At intervals, from the position which I held, I could see the prison doors open for a moment, and the light of a lantern within, as some officer passed in or out.  16
  I remember that I stamped the ground petulantly—it was so cold. Again and again I looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes to six!  17
  It was fairly daylight now, though the morning was dark and cloudy, and a fine, searching mist was in the air.  18
  A man in blouse placed a bag of sawdust at the foot of the gallows. The crowd must have now numbered a thousand. An old market-woman stood next me. She saw me look at my watch, and asked the hour.  19
  “Eight minutes to six.”  20
  “Mon Dieu; huit minutes encore!” She was eager for the end.  21
  I could have counted time now by the beating of my heart.  22
  What was Emile Roque doing within those doors? praying? struggling? was the face of the castaway on him? I could not separate him now from that fearful picture; I was straining my vision to catch a glimpse—not of Emile Roque—but of the living counterpart of that terrible expression which he had wrought—wild, aimless despair.  23
  Two minutes of six.  24
  I saw a hasty rush of men to the parapet that topped the prison wall; they leaned there, looking over.  25
  I saw a stir about the prison gates, and both were flung wide open.  26
  There was a suppressed murmur around me—“Le voici! Le voici!” I saw him coming forward between two officers; he wore no coat or waistcoat, and his shirt was rolled back from his throat; his arms were pinioned behind him; his bared neck was exposed to the frosty March air; his face was pale—deathly pale, yet it was calm; I recognized not the castaway, but the man—Emile Roque.  27
  There was a moment between the prison gates and the foot of the scaffold; he kissed the crucifix, which a priest handed him, and mounted with a firm step. I know not how, but in an instant he seemed to fall, his head toward the knife—under the knife.  28
  My eyes fell. I heard the old woman beside me say passionately, “Mon Dieu! il ne veut pas!”  29
  I looked toward the scaffold; at that supreme moment the brute instinct in him had rallied for a last struggle. Pinioned as he was, he had lifted up his brawny shoulders and withdrawn his neck from the fatal opening. Now indeed, his face wore the terrible expression of the picture. Hate, fear, madness, despair, were blended in his look.  30
  But the men mastered him; they thrust him down; I could see him writhe vainly. My eyes fell again.  31
  I heard a clang—a thud!  32
  There was a movement in the throng around me. When I looked next at the scaffold, a man in blouse was sprinkling sawdust here and there. Two others were lifting the long willow basket into a covered cart. I could see now that the guillotine was painted of a dull red color, so that no blood-stains would show.  33
  I moved away with the throng, the sleet crumpling under my feet.  34
  I could eat nothing that day. I could not sleep on the following night.  35
  The bloodshot eyes and haggard look of the picture which had at the last—as I felt it would be—been made real in the man, haunted me.  36
  I never go now to the gallery of the Louvre but I shun the painting of the wrecked Medusa as I would shun a pestilence.  37
 
 
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