An ex-army officer languishes inside his prison cell six years into a twenty-year sentence
| Herbert de Villeneuve, once a fortuitous and promising army officer, a condemned lieutenant from the French 2nd Dragoon Corps, stamped and dragged his feet along the empty wall of his prison cell. The movement was that day, a result of rage, of frustration than a need of exercise, of recreation, if it could be called sport, cooped up in confinement thirty feet by twenty-five. He hadn’t determined the precise measurement because he hadn’t finished calculating the final millimetre. It complimented the stamping and scraping.
The footsteps helped to occupy his mind, a tonic to distract its attention from turning insane; a possible outcome of an incarcerated situation, a feeling of being stifled, if not suffocated. The prison authorities ignored him the chance of stepping out of doors. He had also acquired the art of meditation, a further tonic that helped him to compensate for the boredom he might feel.
His quiet musing, an observation that allayed any external distraction, enabled him to come to terms, unwind and negate some of his past that might have resulted in some grandiloquent conventionality. What most might view as a glorious future, he’d come to see as partisan, limiting and dull.
Herbert received every two weeks, a chance to stretch his legs to trot close to the sides of a much larger enclave, the courtyard of Paris’s austere and sombre Cherche-Midi military prison where he was confined. The hour-long practise lasted like the flit of a twittering sparrow, having eyed a different or a more convenient space on a nearby tree branch. The prison warden would soon come to overstep his authority and give himself the privilege of grabbing de Villeneuve by the scruff of the neck and yank him back to his cell, push him inside and bang shut its stout iron-riveted door. A thud echoing through the thick gloomy corridor walls soon died once the gaoler twisted one of the clanking keys that hung from a large circular steel attachment and locked the entrance.
Herbert would ponder when the next spell in the courtyard might be: next week, the week after, not until the week after that? Such lofty decisions rested with those up the ladder of the penal system, a polite nod from the prison authorities. But the Empire of Napoleon III was harsh how it treated and regarded accused military officers and punished them severely for smuggling military secrets to the Prussian enemy. A rigorous, uncompromising treatment that was operational had reached back to the triumphalist days of Napoleon III’s uncle, the Great Bonaparte himself, Napoleon 1.
Herbert kicked to one side the thin grey blankets that lay on top of a striped covered mattress. He lifted one of the corners which uncovered a grid the length and width of the bed which, on four dour stout iron legs, stood next to the opposite wall on the flagstoned floor of his cell. Herbert looked at the grid with a hint of sarcasm and put back the mattress. He stared at the blankets with a feeling of anger towards the prison hierarchy who, from the goodness of their hearts, had given him to sleep under, to cushion his body from the cold that seeped from the floor. There wasn’t enough fabric to wrap himself warmly in their folds. Often he’d wake in the blackened surrounds shivering from the cold, had delusions that an extreme wind was whistling along the sides of his cell or like the brushing of a flimsy garment or because he’d heard a scurrying mouse that had scratched its way through an unnoticed crack in the base of the wall or from the floor.
The blankets lay crumpled to one side next to the wall. Herbert slumped down onto the bare mattress feeling another spasm of anguish, and leant the base of his spine against the covering burying his face in his hands, still wondering after all this time how, a result of foul play, he’d ended up in prison, an ex-officer who had nothing to show for himself except for the ostracised confines that all but exceeded the limited space. A one-time rising military lieutenant, he’d been a ranking star in the Emperor’s service and the French Second Empire, who showed courage, bravado and exceptional skill with the sabre, although his finesse with the bayonet demonstrated talent. But it was the showing off that had been his undoing – an undoing that had him falsely accused of smuggling state secrets to the Prussian Army. He’d been court-martialed, humiliated, stripped of his rank, his reputation; accused in front of a military tribunal that represented a system that had, in an instant, turned its back on him. It had decided to sentence him to a minimum of twenty years penal servitude, all because of a forged document that had stuck to him like mud: “Count yourself lucky you’re not getting shipped to our penal colony, Devil’s Island,” the Commander General who had passed sentence grimly added. “Take him down.”
Herbert had many days and hours to develop a hunch he’d been framed, set up by a tiny group of very jealous officers in his regiment whose military prowess was mediocre by comparison and who were determined to thwart a comparative meteoric military career. He’d served several years into his sentence – six to the day – to reflect how an enthusiastic compulsion to prove how sweeping and swift his swordsmanship was perhaps delusional; had backfired, had shattered his hopes, his beliefs, his illusions. He reflected how proud and stiff he’d sit decked in his ornate uniform on his horse and eyed the spectators below him with the air and weakness of a braggart, something some petty officers in his regiment looked on with scowls and seething resentment. He had gleamed once – his shining sabre, his bright buttons, his knee-length boots meticulously polished. All of it had dimmed and vanished.
A sudden urge to be stationed at some front fighting the Russians, the Italians, the Austrians or the Spanish, to make full use of his combative skill, grabbed at his mind from time to time. But that he was let down by a system he’d once served loyally and made him a condemned victim, a criminal, he felt another surge, sudden anger to turn against the French themselves, his countrymen. He had spent many days coming to terms that loyalty and honour, as well as a perfect will or an outstanding performance that deserved merit – ideals he’d had instilled since he was a child – weren’t as cracked up to be as society was supposed to respect or implement. The whole agglomeration merely showed its limitations – so much for them. One important lesson he had learned during his days locked up was, that if an opportunity, a slim chance should come along that might set him at liberty before the completion of his sentence, he’d not use his talents with the sabre to loyally or conventionally serve his country. He’d instead use them in some other way and turn his back on those conventions that had so readily turned their back on him.
A small food hatch at the base of the cell’s entrance instantly slid up, causing Herbert to interrupt his mental projection. He clambered off the mattress, went over and bent down to pick up a metal pan put through a scraped-up iron panel at the bottom of the door. The midday meal, scraps of food, had arrived. His hands picked up and cradled the side of the bowl, and he looked at its contents, a sallow mixture of thin bouillon, broth extracted from the bones of chicken and other domesticated animals with streaks of cabbage and gristle that floated in the liquid. The stalks, no longer fresh, were left for use by the prisoners; especially those in Herbert’s situation. The lumps of fat tasted mouldy as he lifted the pan to his mouth and slurped the greasy broth and hurriedly chewed and swallowed the morsels. When he started his sentence, he flung the pot in a rage and disgust, and with such force that it pinged against one of the walls and clattered on the flagstones spilling the contents that streaked down the smooth-sided enclave. He was lucky not to have damaged prison property. He had, perhaps ironically, all but got used to either the bland or rancid taste.
The hatch slid up again. Herbert glanced at two pulled-off morsels of bread that was left to become stale. He picked them up from another pan. They were hard and couldn’t be chewed, except to give the sides and palate of his mouth lacerations and ulcers. He’d left just enough broth in the other tin to immerse and soften the bread. Hardly nutritious, he thought, as he finished swallowing the clumps and threw the empty pans in a sudden uncontrollable rage as they pinged against the opposite wall and fell hitting the floor with a hollow grating. As anger is deeply rooted it was understandable he should still lash at authority, and a power that had put him in his cell, number 200. Still, this slop is better than nothing, he thought, as he kept consoling himself; it's keeping me alive, an art of living.
Despite suffering from emptiness, he cherished his life at all costs. He bent down and with some trepidation picked up the pans and placed them immediately in front of the trapdoor relieved no damage had occurred which might incur some punishment. The gaoler would be coming back at any minute, which he did and said nothing as his hand reached in and removed the tins.
Herbert slumped his tall, lean frame back down against the crumpled blanket, sat back against the wall, sighed, rubbed his thick beard and travelled his fingers through his long, dark-brown matted hair. The prison authorities had denied him shaving and clipping equipment, so he had to let the beard, and the hair grow, which wasn’t to his taste. After allowing the fingers of his right-hand drum the billows of the mattress, he drew his knees towards his chest and locked both his arms around his shins.
The afternoon sunlight from the barred window cast shadows as it streamed into the cell spreading across the opposite wall, which also comprised the door. The ex-officer let his mind wander, to make it travel back to those bright days a half a dozen years ago when he showed unmistakable loyalty and a glittering quality. The ex-soldier had a promising future, a shimmering prowess as a petty officer, a 2nd Dragoon guard, in the Second Empire of Napoleon III.
Suddenly, he looked up. He imagined it still; the sabre he had used swishing, cutting flashing from the beamed light. Was it a 1796 light cavalry? Did he strain his ear to hear the distant sound of trampling hooves and the cheering of the crowd?