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It was a knockoutblow a punch so overwhelming that I didn't get back on my feet for fourteen years. And to deliver a blow like that, they went to a lot of trouble.
It was the twenty-sixth of October, 1931. At eight o'clock in the morning they let me out of the cell I'd been occupying in the Conciergerie for a year. I was freshly shaved and carefully dressed. My suit was from a good tailor and gave me an air of elegance. A white shirt and pale-blue bow tie added the final touches.
I was twenty-five but looked twenty. The police were a little awed by my gentlemanly appearance and treated me with courtesy. They had even taken off my handcuffs. All six of us, the five policemen and I, were seated on two benches in a bare anteroom of the Palais de justice de Ia Seine in Paris. The doors facing us led to the courtroom. Outside the weather was gray.
I was about to be tried for murder. My lawyer, Raymond Hubert, came over to greet me. "They have no real proof," he said. "I'm confident we'll be acquitted." I smiled at that we. He wasn't the defendant. I was. And if anybody went to jail, it wouldn't be him.
A guard appeared and motioned us in. The double doors swung wide and, flanked by four policemen and a sergeant, I entered the enormous room. To soften me up for the blow, everything was blood red: the rugs, the draperies over the big windows, even the robes of the judges who would soon sit in judgment over me.
"Gentlemen, the court!"
From a door on the right six men filed in, one after the other: the President, thenthe five magistrates, their caps on their heads. The President stopped in front of the middle chair, the magistrates took their places on either side.
An impressive silence filled the room. Everyone remained standing, myself included. Then the Bench sat down and the rest of us followed suit.
The President was a chubby man with pink cheeks and a cold eye. His name was Bevin. He looked at me without a trace of emotion. Later on, he would conduct the proceedings with strict impartiality, and his attitude would lead everyone to understand that, as a career judge, he wasn't entirely convinced of the sincerity of either the witnesses or the police. No, he would take no responsibility for the blow; he would only announce the verdict.
The prosecutor was Magistrate Pradel. He had the grim reputation of being the "number one" supplier to the guillotine and to the domestic and colonial prisons as well.
Pradel was the personification of public vengeance: the official accuser, without a shred of humanity. He represented law and justice, and he would do everything in his power to bend them to his will. His vulture's eyes gazed intently down at me-down because he sat above me, and down also because of his great height. He was at least six foot three-and he carried it with arrogance. He kept on his red cloak but placed his cap in front of him and braced himself with hands as big as paddles. A gold band indicated he was married, and on his little finger he wore a ring made from a highly polished horseshoe nail.
Leaning forward a little, the better to dominate me, he seemed to be saying, "Look, my fun-loving friend, if you think you can get away from me, you're much mistaken. You don't know it, but my hands are really talons and they're about to tear you to pieces. And if I'm feared by the lawyers, it's because I never allow my prey to escape.
"It's none of my business whether you're guilty or innocent; my job is to use everything that's available against you: your bohemian life in Montmartre, the testimony extorted from the witnesses by the police, the testimony of the police themselves. With the disgusting swill the investigator has collected, I must make you seem so repulsive that the jury will cast you out of the society of men."
Was I dreaming or was he really speaking to me? Either way I was deeply impressed by this "devourer of men."
"Don't try to resist, prisoner. Above all, don't try to defend yourself. I'm going to send you down the road of the condemned anyway. And I trust you have no faith in the jury. Have no illusions in that quarter. Those twelve know nothing of life.
"Look at them, there in front of you. Can you see them clearly, those dozen cheeseheads brought to Paris from some distant village? They're only petits bourgeois, some retired, others small businessmen. Not worth talking about. You can't expect them to understand your twenty-five years and the life you've led in Montmartre. To them, Pigalle and the Place Blanche are hell itself, and anybody who stays up half the night is an enemy of society. They like to serve on this jury, are extremely proud of it, in fact.
Moreover, I can assure you, they're all acutely aware of their own mean little lives.
"And here you are, young and handsome. Surely you realize I'm going to hold nothing back when I describe you as a Don Juan of Montmartre? I'll make them your enemies straight off. You're too well dressed. You should have worn more humble garments. Ah, that was a major tactical error. Don't you see they envy you your clothes? They buy theirs at Samaritaine. Never have they gone to a tailor, even in their dreams."
It was now ten o'clock, and we were ready to start. Before me were six magistrates, one of whom was an aggressive attorney who was going to use all his Machiavellian power and intelligence to convince these twelve shopkeepers that I was guilty...