In the spirit of Halloween, I decided to post my side-story (or prequel story . . . I guess?) to a series I may or may not post on here in the future. Heck, most of it still needs to be written. You needn't know the other story to understand this one, except for the main premise. Which you'll get, don't worry. It's been done before.
This will probably be a series of vignettes with a loose storyline attached. There are time jumps, hence the location and date at the beginning. Hope it's not terribly confusing.
Title roughly translates to "man is a wolf to [his fellow] man" or "man is man's wolf". Hugo references it in another novel, The Man Who Laughs, in which a wolf-dog is named Homo. Yeah, yeah, laugh it up. Enjoy.
The heat of the day was murderous, as usual. For someone who was not yet accustomed to the starch-stiff collars of the guard uniforms, the temperature proved particularly intolerable.
A young guard who had been working in the galleys and quarries for two years still felt that instinctive need to tug at his collar. Each time the impulse came, his conscious would gave it a reprimanding slap. No, it said, almost mockingly. Bad boy.
He sighed and continued to chastise himself. He was well acquainted with the heat of the south, so the addition of a collar should not have been an exceptional burden. It was not simply the collar, though. His entire uniform was a confining but necessary oppression to his body. Despite every instinct that raged against it, he would not voice complaint and would fight every urge to do so. He would become used to it. Eventually.
"What's the matter with you?" inquired Favreau, one of his colleagues, beside him. "A new batch of convicts not exciting enough for you?"
"Is there anything special about it?" he retorted.
"In this place, you take what you can get." Favreau titled his hat back to give his forehead some air. "So why all the sighing?"
"Just the heat."
"Bouchard giving you a hard time?"
"Got a girl on your mind?"
He was tempted to laugh. "Not quite."
Favreau pulled his hat back down. "Well fine, then. I haven't all day to ask you questions."
"Like I said, it's just the heat."
"Sure it is."
The two young men resumed their previous bout of silence as they and a few more guards awaited the arrival of the cart. The stream of incoming criminals never ceased, the guard thought with increasing morosity. If they weren't newcomers, they were returned horses. The cycle of crime and conviction was as tiresome as the rotation of the wheels that brought the prisoners. The turning of wheels provoked mixed feelings in him to begin with. Someone out of mild curiosity once asked him if he preferred ships to carriages; he said he might except the rocking on the swells tested his balance far too much.
In truth, walking on a ship might not have been problematic if he were allowed to walk on all fours. But that was a moot point.
The cart with its reluctant passengers finally arrived. The young man straightened himself as he assisted the older guards in unloading the chained convicts one by one. It helped to distract him from the heat and granted him the chance to quickly examine and capture their faces. He would undoubtedly see these faces numerous times, and it did no harm to memorize them now and be able to identify any of them later if they decided to cause trouble. It was a small effort that had already put him on good terms with his superiors. Bouchard was an exception, although he wasn't sure he could really call the violent-tempered deputy warden his superior yet. Bouchard monitored the general conduct of a select group of guards while he was permitted to strike out at clumsy prisoners with a whip or bludgeon. The guard couldn't pick and choose the figures of authority here, but he found consolation in that Bouchard did have his own superiors to whom he must answer.
While each convict was individual in physical appearance, he wore the same sullen expression as his soon-to-be fellow inmates. Most kept their eyes on the ground. A few gave their captors either dark or fearful looks. The ones who looked boldly at the guards were mostly likely the ones returning to imprisonment. There were on occasion a few criminals who practically enjoyed their return, like homeward bound war heroes. These cretins left a disgusting taste in the young guard's eyes.
Then there were the complete contrasts, the sorriest souls of the lot. They would be the ones ready to cry their eyes out at the sight of their chains and cells. Although he could not bring himself to feel very sorry for them, the guard momentarily considered how the other prisoners would view these men, and to what lengths they might take advantage of their apparent vulnerability.
But it was not his place to worry about what would happen. He concerned himself with what did happen, and so such matters could only be handled when they were a present issue. There were simply too many prisoners in which to investment concern. And to what point did they really deserve it?
It did not take long for him to identify the weeper. He was a man in his prime, nearly thirty, with dark hair and broad shoulders, which was partly the reason the guard was surprised by his behavior. After escorting the group to the offices where the prisoners received their tunics, the guard gave the prisoners another quick examination. Suddenly, the broad-shouldered man started weeping. Not merely sniffling or shedding quiet tears, but sobbing and balling. This gained the attention of not only the guard, but every bloody person in the room. No one could stand or sit comfortably as the man carried on. Good Lord, had the man no dignity?
"Shut up!" hissed the con next to him, giving him a shove.
"Silence, both of you!" snapped Baudin, one of the older guards.
The man calmed down a bit, but his frame still shuddered from silent, involuntary sobs. The display had been unnecessarily melodramatic, and the guard could only wonder what comfort a man could gain from tears.
You wouldn't know, would you? said an accusing voice in his head. It's not as if you can shed tears. Not like they can.
Like the brute on the chain, he told the voice to shut up.
The guard returned to his normal duties in the quarries, which thankfully became more bearable as the day aged and the sun receded toward the horizon. His shift was nearly at an end when the chief warden's secretary, M. Morin, informed him that M. Thierry wanted to speak with him before leaving.
The guard conceded to the request and waited in the foyer outside the warden's office. Across the room sat a gentleman who also apparently had an appointment with the warden. At his feet lay a leashed basset hound. As soon as the guard entered the room, the dog's head popped up and refused to go back down. He tried to seem uninterested and relaxed, but the dog refused to change its attitude. He looked around at the dull green and beige wallpaper, the portrait of _ over the mantelpiece, the white-washed ceiling, his boots – anything but the dog and its master.
Five minutes passed like this. Ten. Fifteen. The guard snuck a glance at the dog. It stared at him warningly. This was getting ridiculous.
That's it! He directed his full gaze at the squat canine. The dog not only continued to stare back; it growled.
"Gaston!" chided the gentleman, only now noticing the dog's tense form.
The dog did not retract its gaze. The guard sneered. You're not worth my concern. Stop making a fool of yourself.
The dog growled again.
"Gaston!" The gentleman looked at the young man. "Forgive him. I don't think he's well."
"It's nothing," said the guard.
The dog barked. Or at least it sounded like a bark to its master. To the guard it said, "Don't dare speak to my master!"
The gentleman chided him again and tugged on the leash. The dog went quiet but looked more than dissatisfied. The guard smirked.
The animosity did not abate until the gentleman went into the warden's office, dog in tow, then returned and departed. Before leaving, though, he gave the young man another apologetic look. "He's usually not like this."
"I suppose I'm not a dog person," replied the guard with a shrug.
The gentleman nodded. "Have a good evening."
The guard was called into the office. "I apologize for the delay," remarked Thierry as he sat behind his desk. "Chaboillet's little beast wouldn't stop tugging at its leash." He chuckled and motioned for the guard to sit.
"It was no trouble, sir," he replied, maintaining all decorum. "You wished to speak to me?"
"Yes. It will only take a moment."
"I am in no hurry."
To this Thierry gave him a knowing grin. "That's the only trouble with you, Javier. You're not like other young men who always have places to go. As helpful as that is to me and to your duties, it might do you some service to enjoy life a little more."
The creeping desire to frankly respond made the young guard dumb for a moment. "Thank you, sir, but I am content with my habits."
"There's content, and then there's fulfilled." The warden sighed. "My boy, don't do this job forever. It will only wear you down to a well-polished piece of coal. Believe me."
He felt a little jolt of uneasiness, but remained placid. "Yes, sir."
"Now, as to the matter I wished to address . . . I think I may assume that your evenings are quite open?"
The guard's forehead furrowed a little. "For the most part, yes."
"You are free to say no, Javier, but I would like you to take on one or two of the night shifts. With the retirement of a few of our senior wardens, we need to shift schedules. And I also think your diligence and work ethic deserve some kind of reward."
By making me work more? "I understand, sir."
"You may even – this is no guarantee – but you may even be promoted to assistant to one of the deputy-chief wardens."
"I see." The logical component of his mind acknowledged the honor of such a position, but his emotional concerns lay elsewhere.
"So . . . do you wish to accept?"
He chewed on the inner part of his lip. "May I have some time to think it over?"
"Of course," said Thierry with a well-meaning smile. "Notice within the next few days would be preferable, but take some time to think about it."
"I should know by tomorrow," assured the guard in monotone. "Thank you, sir."
"Have a good evening, Javier. Enjoy your youth. It wouldn't last much longer."
The guard was convinced that his youth was at least one boot out the door. And he was only seventeen.
Javier was almost ashamed at hesitating at the offer, but his concerns were not unjustified. There was namely his condition to consider. The extra time would place strain on him. And nighttime was his most vulnerable period. How much more discipline would he require to keep his needs in check?
He thought these thoughts and more as he made his way to his small flat which he shared with Favreau and Porcher, a law student who was always eager to discuss politics. Favreau was willing to oblige to a point; Javier would find ways to make himself unavailable for such discussions. Politics were fraught with motives and bargaining and strife that made human frailty and corruption all the more evident and insufferable. If Javier wanted to know about current events, he read the paper. Ergo, he read the paper infrequently.
There was only one reason he was willing to share a flat with Porcher, which happened to be the same primary reason he shared a flat with Favreau: they were rarely around. Even as a student, Porcher felt it necessary to work and think outside the confinements of a room, so he would leave and return with his pockets filled to the cuffs with essays and notes, of which he would carelessly dispose on or in his desk, then turn immediately around and go back out into the world. Favreau had a belle with whom he spent most of his time, usually on the town or at her private apartment. Both men were a few years older than him and did not feel a particular obligation to invite him on their outings. Favreau occasionally asked if he wished to join him, usually with the promise of meeting a pretty grisette; Javier would refuse, and Favreau would not press the matter.
The arrangement was ideal for all. Javier needed the time to be alone, especially in the evening. Night was the only time when he could indulge a little. Despite what Favreau and Porcher believed, he did go out on the town. He was careful of where he chose to go, which was usually the beach of Le Mourillon rather than the heart of the city. The residential population was less dense and fewer people were expected to be out at night. He gradually adjusted his habits to the urban setting, but some tweaking to his routine was called for. Access to the harbor proved most beneficial to his excursions, as the sea air and open sky helped counter the anxieties of the day.
He wondered at times if he should rebuke the relief he felt when he did this – the soothing sense of freedom that was, in truth, an illusion. He was still in Toulon, still living among humans and learning to be more like them, however much they frustrated him. No, there could be no harm in it. He did well to control himself the rest of the time. A small reward kept him from losing his mind.
Then mightn't he lose it now? If he accepted M. Thierry's offer, what would he do on those nights? The darkness would only make him restless. Could he adapt to further restraint if it meant moving up in his profession?
Of course I can, he thought has he came up to the apartment and withdrew his key. I've come this far, have I not?
That night he walked the waterfront of Le Mourillon on the Mediterranean, paws pressing on wet sand and pebbles, the warm salty air passing against his muzzle. He stared up at the black sky and the brilliant stars.
Enjoy life a little more. If this wasn't enjoying it, it was close enough for him.