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The Last Day Of A Condemned
by Victor Hugo, Trans. By Eugenia De B
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The message could be delivered by any present-day liberal, about any extreme punishment.
Deeply shocking in its time, The Last Day of a Condemned Man is a profound and moving tale and a vital work of social commentary.
A man vilified by society and condemned to death for his crime wakes every morning knowing that this day might be his last. With the hope for release his only comfort, he spends his hours recounting his life and the time before his imprisonment. But as the hours pass, he knows that he is powerless to change his fate. He must follow the path so many have trod before him—the path that leads to the guillotine. With a Foreword by Libby Purves.
Now I am a captive. My body is fettered in a cell, my brain imprisoned in a fixed idea, and dreadful, bloody, and merciless it is! I now have but one thought, a lone conviction and a single certainty: that I am condemned to death!
There is still hope,' he said.
I'm sure there is,' I replied, relaxed and smiling myself.
Most definitely,' he went on. We don't yet know how they have found, but since they can hardly believe you guilty of premeditation, it will be hard labour for life.'
What are you saying, sir?' I replied indignantly. Death is infinitely to be preferred.'
Yes, death! And anyway,' some inner voice prompted me, I can say so without tempting fate. When have death sentences ever been pronounced except at midnight, by flickering torchlight, in a dingy, black courtroom, on a cold and rainy winter's night? But in August, at eight in the morning, on such a fine day, and with such decent jurors, it would be unthinkable!' And my eyes moved back to the pretty yellow flower in the sunlight.
Just then the president of the court, who had only been waiting for my counsel to appear, bid me stand up. The guard shouldered arms, and at once all the onlookers were on their feet. An unprepossessing individual seated at a table beneath the judges' dais, who must have been the clerk of court, stood to address the assembly and read out the verdict that the jury had pronounced in my absence. My limbs were suddenly drenched in cold sweat, and I leaned against the wall so as not to collapse.
Counsel for the defence, have you anything to say in mitigation of the sentence?' asked the presiding judge.
It was for me to have plenty to say, but nothing occurred to me. My tongue stayed glued to the roof of my mouth.
My defence counsel stood up.
I saw that he was trying to soften the jury's verdict and to substitute, for the sentence that it carried, the lesser one that I had been so outraged to find him anticipating.
My indignation must have been strong indeed to have surfaced amid this multitude of emotions conflicting in me. I tried to shout out loud what I had already told him: Death is infinitely to be preferred!' But words failed me, and I could do no more than grab him roughly by the arm, crying desperately, No!'
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