Quotations from P G Wodehouse are copyright of, and reprinted by permission of, the Trustees of the Wodehouse Estate © 2019 The P G Wodehouse Society (UK)
I broke off my Odyssey of the internees of Le Touquet last week, if you remember, with our little band of pilgrims entering Loos Prison. Owing to having led a blameless life since infancy, I had never seen the interior of a calaboose before, and directly I set eyes on the official in the front office, I regretted that I was doing so now. There are moments, as we pass through life, when we gaze into a stranger's eye and say to ourselves "I have met a friend". This was not one of those occasions. There is probably nobody in the world less elfin than a French prison official, and the one now twirling a Grover Whalen moustache at me looked like something out of a film about Devil's Island.
Still, an author never quite gives up hope, and I think there was just a faint idea at the back of my mind that mine host, on hearing my name, would start to his feet with a cry of "Quoi? Monsieur Vodeouse? Embrassez-
Nothing like that happened. He just twirled the moustache again, entered my name in a large book, -
It was now getting on for ten o'clock at night, and it was this, I discovered later, that saved us a lot of unpleasantness. Round about the hour of ten, the French prison official tends to slacken up a bit. He likes to get into something loose and relax over a good book, and this makes him go through the motions of housing a batch of prisoners quickly and perfunctorily. When I got out into the exercise yard next morning, and met some of the men who had been in the place for a week, I found that they, on arrival, had been stood with their faces to the wall, stripped to their B.V.D.s, deprived of all their belongings and generally made to feel like so many imprisoned pieces of cheese. All they did to us was take away our knives and money and leave us.
Cells in French prisons are built for privacy. Where in the gaols of America there are bars, here you have only a wall with an iron-
Cartmell being the senior member of our trio, we gave him the bed, and Algy and I turned in on the floor. It was the first time I had tried dossing on a thin mattress on a granite floor, but we Wodehouses are tough stuff; and it was not long before the tired eyelids closed in sleep. My last waking thought, I remember, was that, while this was a hell of a thing to have happened to a respectable old gentleman in his declining years, it was all pretty darned interesting and that I could hardly wait to see what the morrow would bring forth.
What the morrow brought forth, at seven sharp, was a rattling of keys and the opening of a small panel in the door, through which were thrust three tin mugs containing a thin and lukewarm soup and three loaves of bread, a dark sepia in colour. This, one gathered, was breakfast, and the problem arose of how to play our part in the festivities. The soup was all right. One could manage that. You just took a swallow, and then another swallow to see if it had really tasted as bad as it had seemed to the first time, and before you knew where you were, it had gone. But how, not having knives, we were to deal with the bread presented a greater test of our ingenuity. Biting bits off it was not a practical proposition for my companions, whose teeth were not of the best: and it was no good hammering it on the edge of the table, because it simply splintered the woodwork. But there is always a way of getting around life's little difficulties, if you give your mind to it. I became bread-
There was nothing much we could do except stand, for the enclosure -
Having stood for thirty minutes, we returned to our cells, greatly refreshed, and remained there for the next twenty-
Next day, the key rattled in the lock at seven, and we got soup, and at eight-
Apart from Shakespeare, who is unquestionably a writer who takes you away from it all, what made existence tolerable was the window. I had always understood that prison cells had small windows of ground glass, placed high up near the ceiling, but ours was a spacious affair of about five feet by four, and you could open it wide and even, by standing on the bed, get a glimpse from it of a vegetable garden and fields beyond. And the air that came through it was invaluable in keeping our cell smell within reasonable bounds.
The cell smell is a great feature of all French prisons. Ours in Number Forty-
We became very fond and proud of it, championing it hotly against other prisoners who claimed that theirs had more authority and bouquet, and when the first German officer to enter our little sanctum rocked back on his heels and staggered out backwards, we took it as almost a personal compliment. It was like hearing a tribute paid to an old friend.
Nevertheless, in spite of the interest of hobnobbing with our smell, we found time hang a little heavy on our hands. I was all right. I had my Complete Works of William Shakespeare. But Algy had no drinks to mix, and Cartmell no pianos to tune. And a piano-
It was on the fourth morning, accordingly, that we addressed a petition to the German Kommandant, pointing out that, as we were civil internees, not convicts, there was surely no need for all this Ballad of Reading Gaol stuff, and asking if it would not be possible to inject a little more variety into our lives.
This appeal to Caesar worked like magic. Apparently the Kommandant had not had a notion that we were being treated as we were -
Everything is relative -
And, even if it shows a vindictive spirit, I must confess that the pleasure was increased by the sight of the horror and anguish on the faces of the prison personnel. If there is one man who is a stickler for tradition and etiquette, for what is done and what is not done, it is the French prison warder, and here were tradition and etiquette being chucked straight into the ash-
In the end, we got quite sorry for the poor chaps, and relented to the extent of allowing them to lock us in for the night. It was pathetic to see how they brightened up at this concession. It paved the way to an understanding, and before we left the place we had come to he on quite friendly terms. One of them actually unbent to the extent of showing us the condemned cell -
Our great topic of conversation, as we strolled about the corridors, was, of course, where we were going from here, and when. For we could not believe that Loos Prison was anything but a temporary resting place. And we were right. A week after we had arrived, we were told to line up in the corridor, and presently the Kommandant appeared and informed us that, after our papers had been examined, we were to pack and be ready to leave.
Men of sixty and over, he added, would be released and sent home, so these lucky stiffs went and stood to one side in a row, looking like a beauty chorus. On the strength of being fifty-
I did not brood about this much, however, for it had just occurred to me that, having left my passport behind, I might quite easily have to stay on after the others had gone wherever they were going. Fortunately, I had twelve stout fellows from Le Touquet to testify to my identity and respectability, and they all lined up beside me and did their stuff. The Kommandant was plainly staggered by this cloud of witnesses, and in the end I just got under the wire.
This was on the Saturday evening, and far into the night the place buzzed with speculation. I don't know who first started the rumour that we were going to the barracks at Liege, but he turned out to be quite right. That was where we were headed for, and at eleven o'clock next morning we were given our mid-
One would have supposed from the atmosphere of breathless bustle that the train was scheduled to pull out at about eleven-
As a matter of fact, all through my period of internment I noticed this tendency on the part of the Germans to start our little expeditions off with a whoop and a rush and then sort of lose interest. It reminded me of Hollywood. When you are engaged to work at Hollywood, you get a cable saying that it is absolutely vital that you be there by ten o'clock on the morning of June the first. Ten-
It is the same with the Germans in this matter of making trains. They like to leave a margin.
Summing up my experience as a gaol-
He said "Au revoir" to me -
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