first exercise-book

down the drain

the assizes

the blow was such a stunner that it was thirteen years before I could get back on to my feet again

it was not the usual kind of blow either, and they clubbed together to let me have it

this was 26 october 1931

at eight in the morning they had taken me out of my cell in the conciergerie the cell I had been living in for the past year

i was well shaved and well dressed

i looked as smooth as they come in my made-to-measure suit and white shirt with a
pale-blue bow-tie to add the finishing touch

i was twenty-five and I looked twenty

the gendarmes were rather impressed by my posh clothes, and they treated me civilly

they even took off the handcuffs

there we were: all six of us, the five gendarmes and me, sitting on two benches in a bare room

a dreary sky outside

the door opposite us must lead into the assize- court, for this building, this paris building was the palais de justice of the seine

in a few moments i was to be indicted for wilful homicide

my counsel, maitre raymond hubert, came in to see me.

“there’s no solid evidence against you, i fully expect us to be acquitted”

that ‘us’ made me smile

anyone would have thought that maitre hubert was going to appear in the dock too, and that if the verdict was guilty he too would have to serve time

an usher opened the door and told us to come in

with four gendarmes round me and the sergeant to one side, i made my entrance through the wide-open double doors into an enormous court-room

they had done the whole place up in red, blood red, so as to hand me out this
crushing blow – all red, the carpets, the curtains at the big windows and even the robes of the judges who were going to deal with me in two or three minutes’ time

`gentlemen, the court !

in single file six men appeared through a door on the right

the president of the court and then five other lawyers with their official hats, their toques, on their heads

the presiding judge stopped at the seat in the middle and his colleagues arranged themselves to the right and the left

there was an impressive silence in the room, and everybody was standing up, including me

the court took its seat, and so did everybody else

the president was a fat-faced man with pink cheeks and a cold eye; he looked straight at me without letting any sort of feeling show

his name was bevin

when things were under way he ran the trial fairly and he made it clear to one and all that as a professional lawyer he was not sure that either the witnesses or the police were
all that straight

no, he had no responsibility for the crusher, all he did was to pass it on to me

the public prosecutor was a lawyer called pradel, and all the barristers were frightened of him

he had the evil reputation of sending more victims to the guillotine and the convict prisons in france and overseas than any other man

pradel stood for the vindication of society

he was the official prosecutor and there was nothing human about him

he represented the law, the scales of justice, he was the one who handled them, and he did everything he possibly could to make them come down on the right
side for him

he lowered the lids over his vulturish eyes and stared at me piercingly from his full height

from the height of his rostrum in the first place, which made him tower over me, and then from his own natural height, an arrogant six feet

he did not take off his red robe, but he put his toque down in front of him, and he leaned on his two great ham-sized hands

there was a gold ring to show he was married, and a ring on his little finger made of a highly polished horseshoe nail

he leant over a little so as to dominate me all the more, and he looked as though he were saying, “if you think you can get away from me, young cock you’ve got it wrong

my hands may not look like talons, but there are claws in my heart that are going to rip you to pieces

and the reason why all the barristers are afraid of me, the reason why the judges think the world of me as a dangerous prosecutor, is that I never let my prey escape

it’s nothing to do with me whether you’re guilty or innocent, all I’m here for is to make use of everything that can be said against you – your disreputable, shiftless life in montmartre, the evidence the police have worked up and the statements of the police themselves

what I am to do is to take hold of all the disgusting filth piled up by the investigating magistrate and manage to make you look so revolting that the jury will see that you vanish from the community”

either I was dreaming or i could hear him perfectly distinctly, this man-eater really shook me

“prisoner at the bar, just you keep quiet, and above all don’t you attempt to defend yourself

i’ll send you down the drain, all right

and I trust you’ve no faith in the jury?

don’t you kid yourself

those twelve men know nothing whatsoever about life

look at them, lined up there opposite you

twelve bastards brought up to paris from some perishing village in the country can you see them clearly ?

small shopkeepers, pensioners, tradesmen

it’s not worth describing them to you in detail

surely you don’t expect them to understand the life you lead in montmartre or what it’s like to be twenty-five ?

as far as they’re concerned pigalle and the place blanche are exactly the same as hell and all night- birds are the natural enemies of society

they are all unspeakably proud of being jurymen at the seine assizes

and what’s more, i can tell you that they loathe their status, they loathe belonging to the pinched, dreary lower-middle class

and now you make your appearance here, all young and handsome

do you really suppose for a moment that i’m not going to make them see you as a night-prowling montmartre don juan ?

that will put them dead against you right away

you’re too well dressed, you ought to have come in something very modest indeed

that was a huge tactical error of yours

can’t you see how jealous of your suit they are ?

they all buy their clothes off the peg — they’ve never even dreamt of having a suit made to measure by a tailor”

ten o’clock, and we were all ready for the trial to start

six official lawyers there in front of me, one of them a fierce, driving prosecutor who was going to use all his machiavellian strength and all his intelligence to convince these twelve innocents that in the first place I was guilty and in the second that the only proper sentence was either penal servitude or the guillotine

i was to be tried for the killing of a pimp, a police- informer belonging to the montmafire underworld

there was no proof, but the cops (who get credit every time they find out who has committed a crime) were going to swear blind that I was guilty

seeing they had no proof, they said they had ‘confidential’ information that left the matter in no doubt

the strongest piece of the prosecution’s evidence was a witness they had primed, a
human gramophone-record manufactured at 36 quai des
orfèvres, their headquarters — a guy by the name of polein

at one point, when I was saying over and over again that I did not know him, the president very fairly asked me ‘you say this witness is lying

very well, but why should he want to lie?’

‘monsieur le president, i’ve had sleepless nights ever since I was arrested, but not out of remorse for having killed roland le petit, because i never did it

it’s because i keep trying to make out what kind of motive this witness can have for attacking me so ferociously and for bringing fresh evidence to support the charge every time it seems to weaken

i’ve come to the conclusion, monsieur le president, that the police picked him up in the act of committing some serious crime and that they made a bargain with him — we ’11 forget it, so long as you denounce papillon

at the time i didn’t think i was so close to the truth