The poet E. E. Cummings and his friend W. S. B. are unhappy as members of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service, a unit sent by Americans to aid the French during World War I. One day they are arrested by French military police. From hints dropped during an investigation, Cummings gathers that W. S. B. wrote letters the censor found suspicious. Because they are good friends, both men are held for questioning. They never find out exactly what they are suspected of doing. On one occasion, Cummings is asked whether he hates the Germans. He replies that he does not, that he simply loves the French very much. The investigating official cannot understand how one can love the French and not hate the Germans. Finally, Cummings and W. S. B. are separated and sent to different prisons. Again and again Cummings is questioned and moved from one spot to another, always under strict guard.
Late one night, he is taken to a prison in the little provincial town of Macé. There he is thrown into a huge darkened room, given a straw mattress, and told to go to sleep. In the darkness, he counts at least thirty voices speaking eleven different languages. Early the next morning he meets W. S. B. in the room, who tells him that all the prisoners there are suspected of being spies, some only because they speak no French.
That morning, he learns the routine of the prison. The enormous room is lined with mattresses down each side, with a few windows to let in light at one end. It smells of stale tobacco and sweat. Some of the men in the room are insane, and most of the others are afraid they might become so. The dull routine begins at five thirty in the morning, when someone is sent down to the kitchen under guard to bring back a bucket of sour, cold coffee. After coffee, the prisoners draw lots to see who will clear the room, sweep the floors, and collect the trash. At seven thirty, they are allowed to walk for two hours in a small, walled-in courtyard. Then comes the first meal of the day, followed by another walk in the garden. At four, they are given supper. At eight, they are locked in the enormous room for the night.
There is little entertainment except fighting and conversation. Some of the men spend their time trying to catch sight of women, who are kept in another part of the prison. The poet begins to accustom himself to the enormous room and to make friends among the various inmates. One of the first of these is Count Bragard, a Belgian painter who specializes in portraits of horses. The count is a perfect gentleman, even in prison, and always looks neat and suave. He and Cummings discuss painting and the arts as if they are at a polite party. Before Cummings leaves, the count begins to act strangely and withdraw from his friends. He is losing his mind.
One day, Cummings is taken to see the head of the prison, a gross man he calls Apollyon....
(The entire section is 1174 words.)