Jean Francois takes the blame for a crime he did not commit after a change in his life has made him a respected tradesman. He has done this to save a naïve rustic from his own fate as an habitual criminal prior to his reformation. He willingly substitutes for the real thief because he can survive a life in jail and his young rustic friend would be spared a life of in-jail and out. Jean Francois has saved his young friend from a life like his. Shows how once labeled a criminal in the eyes of the law; one remains a criminal in the eyes of the law, for the rest of one’s life.
HE was scarcely ten years old when he was arrested for the first time for vagabondage. This is what he said to the judges:
“My name is Jean François Leturc, and for the last six months I’ve been with the man who sings between two lanterns on the Place de la Bastille, scraping on a bit of catgut. I say the chorus with him, and then I cry out, ‘Ask for the new song book, ten centimes, two sous!’ He was always drunk, and he beat me. That’s how the police found me the other night, in these ruined houses. Before that, I used to be with the man who sells brushes.
My mother was a washerwoman; her name is Adele. A gentleman had set her up on a ground floor, at Montmartre, long ago. She was a good worker and very fond of me. She made money because she had the custom of the café waiters, and they need lots of linen. Sundays, she put me to bed early to go to the ball; but weekdays, she sent me to the Brothers’ school, where I learned to read. Well, at last the policeman whose beat was up our street used to stop before her window to talk to her, a big man, with the Crimean medal. They got married, and all went wrong. He took a dislike to me, and set mamma against me. Everybody had a slap for me; and it was then that to get away I spent my days on the Place Clichy, where I got acquainted with the mountebanks. My stepfather lost his job, mamma lost her customers, and so she went to the washhouse to support her husband. It was there she got consumption, from the dampness. She died at Lariboisiere. She was a good woman. Since then I’ve lived with the brush seller and the catgut scraper. Am I going to be put in prison?” He talked this way openly, cynically, like a man. He was a ragged little rascal, as tall as a top boot, with his forehead hidden under a strange yellow mop of hair. Nobody claiming him, they sent him to the reform school. Not intelligent, lazy, especially clumsy with his hands, he could learn there only a poor trade, to reseat straw chairs. Yet he was obedient, naturally quiet and taciturn; and he did not seem to be too profoundly corrupted by that school of vice. But when he was seventeen, and set free in the streets of Paris, he found there, for his misfortune, his prison comrades, wretched creatures, plying the lowest callings. Some were trainers of dogs for rat-catching in the sewers; some shined shoes in the Passage de l’Opéra, on the nights when there were balls; some were amateur wrestlers, letting themselves be thrown by the Hercules of the side shows; some used to fish from rafts out in the river. He tried one of these things and another; and a few months after he had left the house of correction, he was arrested again for a petty theft, a pair of old shoes picked from out an open show window. Result: a year of imprisonment at Sainte-Pélagie, where he served as valet to the political prisoners. He lived, astonished, among this group of prisoners, all very young and carelessly dressed, who talked loudly and carried themselves in such a solemn way. They used to meet in the cell of the eldest of them, a fellow of thirty locked up for a long time already and as though settled at Sainte-Pélagie, a big cell, papered with colored caricatures, out of whose windows could be seen the whole of Paris, its roofs, its...