The End of Evil Ways/Section 9
It was about two o'clock when Monsieur Camusot saw Lucien de Rubempre come in, pale, worn, his eyes red and swollen, in short, in a state of dejection which enabled the magistrate to compare nature with art, the really dying man with the stage performance. His walk from the Conciergerie to the judge's chambers, between two gendarmes, and preceded by the usher, had put the crowning touch to Lucien's despair. It is the poet's nature to prefer execution to condemnation.
As he saw this being, so completely bereft of the moral courage which is the essence of a judge, and which the last prisoner had so strongly manifested, Monsieur Camusot disdained the easy victory; and this scorn enabled him to strike a decisive blow, since it left him, on the ground, that horrible clearness of mind which the marksman feels when he is firing at a puppet.
"Collect yourself, Monsieur de Rubempre; you are in the presence of a magistrate who is eager to repair the mischief done involuntarily by the law when a man is taken into custody on suspicion that has no foundation. I believe you to be innocent, and you will soon be at liberty.—Here is the evidence of your innocence; it is a letter kept for you during your absence by your porter's wife; she has just brought it here. In the commotion caused by the visitation of justice and the news of your arrest at Fontainebleau, the woman forgot the letter which was written by Mademoiselle Esther Gobseck.—Read it!"
Lucien took the letter, read it, and melted into tears. He sobbed, and could not say a single word. At the end of a quarter of an hour, during which Lucien with great difficulty recovered his self-command, the clerk laid before him the copy of the letter and begged him to sign a footnote certifying that the copy was faithful to the original, and might be used in its stead "on all occasions in the course of this preliminary inquiry," giving him the option of comparing the two; but Lucien, of course, took Coquart's word for its accuracy.
"Monsieur," said the lawyer, with friendly good nature, "it is nevertheless impossible that I should release you without carrying out the legal formalities, and asking you some questions.—It is almost as a witness that I require you to answer. To such a man as you I think it is almost unnecessary to point out that the oath to tell the whole truth is not in this case a mere appeal to your conscience, but a necessity for your own sake, your position having been for a time somewhat ambiguous. The truth can do you no harm, be it what it may; falsehood will send you to trial, and compel me to send you back to the Conciergerie; whereas if you answer fully to my questions, you will sleep to-night in your own house, and be rehabilitated by this paragraph in the papers: 'Monsieur de Rubempre, who was arrested yesterday at Fontainebleau, was set at liberty after a very brief examination.'"
This speech made a deep impression on Lucien; and the judge, seeing the temper of his prisoner, added:
"I may repeat to you that you were suspected of being accessory to the murder by poison of this Demoiselle Esther. Her suicide is clearly proved, and there is an end of that; but a sum of seven hundred and fifty thousand francs has been stolen, which she had disposed of by will, and you are the legatee. This is a felony. The crime was perpetrated before the discovery of the will.
"Now there is reason to suppose that a person who loves you as much as you loved Mademoiselle Esther committed the theft for your benefit.—Do not interrupt me," Camusot went on, seeing that Lucien was about to speak, and commanding silence by a gesture; "I am asking you nothing so far. I am anxious to make you understand how deeply your honor is concerned in this question. Give up the false and contemptible notion of the honor binding two accomplices, and tell the whole truth."
The reader must already have observed the extreme disproportion of the weapons in this conflict between the prisoner under suspicion and the examining judge. Absolute denial when skilfully used has in its favor its positive simplicity, and sufficiently defends the criminal; but it is, in a way, a coat of mail which becomes crushing as soon as the stiletto of cross-examination finds a joint to it. As soon as mere denial is ineffectual in face of certain proven facts, the examinee is entirely at the judge's mercy.
Now, supposing that a sort of half-criminal, like Lucien, might, if he were saved from the first shipwreck of his honesty, amend his ways, and become a useful member of society, he will be lost in the pitfalls of his examination.
The judge has the driest possible record drawn up of the proceedings, a faithful analysis of the questions and answers; but no trace remains of his insidiously paternal addresses or his captious remonstrances, such as this speech. The judges of the superior courts see the results, but see nothing of the means. Hence, as some experienced persons have thought, it would be a good plan that, as in England, a jury should hear the examination. For a short while France enjoyed the benefit of this system. Under the Code of Brumaire of the year IV., this body was known as the examining jury, as distinguished from the trying jury. As to the final trial, if we should restore the examining jury, it would have to be the function of the superior courts without the aid of a jury.
"And now," said Camusot, after a pause, "what is your name?—Attention, Monsieur Coquart!" said he to the clerk.
"Lucien Chardon de Rubempre."
"And you were born——?"
"At Angouleme." And Lucien named the day, month, and year.
"You inherited no fortune?"
"And yet, during your first residence in Paris, you spent a great deal, as compared with your small income?"
"Yes, monsieur; but at that time I had a most devoted friend in Mademoiselle Coralie, and I was so unhappy as to lose her. It was my grief at her death that made me return to my country home."
"That is right, monsieur," said Camusot; "I commend your frankness; it will be thoroughly appreciated."
Lucien, it will be seen, was prepared to make a clean breast of it.
"On your return to Paris you lived even more expensively than before," Camusot went on. "You lived like a man who might have about sixty thousand francs a year."
"Who supplied you with the money?"
"My protector, the Abbe Carlos Herrera."
"Where did you meet him?"
"We met when traveling, just as I was about to be quit of life by committing suicide."
"You never heard him spoken of by your family—by your mother?"
"Can you remember the year and the month when you first became connected with Mademoiselle Esther?"
"Towards the end of 1823, at a small theatre on the Boulevard."
"At first she was an expense to you?"
"Lately, in the hope of marrying Mademoiselle de Grandlieu, you purchased the ruins of the Chateau de Rubempre, you added land to the value of a million francs, and you told the family of Grandlieu that your sister and your brother-in-law had just come into a considerable fortune, and that their liberality had supplied you with the money.—Did you tell the Grandlieus this, monsieur?"
"You do not know the reason why the marriage was broken off?"
"Not in the least, monsieur."
"Well, the Grandlieus sent one of the most respectable attorneys in Paris to see your brother-in-law and inquire into the facts. At Angouleme this lawyer, from the statements of your sister and brother-in-law, learned that they not only had hardly lent you any money, but also that their inheritance consisted of land, of some extent no doubt, but that the whole amount of invested capital was not more than about two hundred thousand francs.—Now you cannot wonder that such people as the Grandlieus should reject a fortune of which the source is more than doubtful. This, monsieur, is what a lie has led to——"
Lucien was petrified by this revelation, and the little presence of mind he had preserved deserted him.
"Remember," said Camusot, "that the police and the law know all they want to know.—And now," he went on, recollecting Jacques Collin's assumed paternity, "do you know who this pretended Carlos Herrera is?"
"Yes, monsieur; but I knew it too late."
"Too late! How? Explain yourself."
"He is not a priest, not a Spaniard, he is——"
"An escaped convict?" said the judge eagerly.
"Yes," replied Lucien, "when he told me the fatal secret, I was already under obligations to him; I had fancied I was befriended by a respectable priest."
"Jacques Collin——" said Monsieur Camusot, beginning a sentence.
"Yes," said Lucien, "his name is Jacques Collin."
"Very good. Jacques Collin has just now been identified by another person, and though he denies it, he does so, I believe, in your interest. But I asked whether you knew who the man is in order to prove another of Jacques Collin's impostures."
Lucien felt as though he had hot iron in his inside as he heard this alarming statement.
"Do you not know," Camusot went on, "that in order to give color to the extraordinary affection he has for you, he declares that he is your father?"
"He! My father?—Oh, monsieur, did he tell you that?"
"Have you any suspicion of where the money came from that he used to give you? For, if I am to believe the evidence of the letter you have in your hand, that poor girl, Mademoiselle Esther, must have done you lately the same services as Coralie formerly rendered you. Still, for some years, as you have just admitted, you lived very handsomely without receiving anything from her."
"It is I who should ask you, monsieur, whence convicts get their money! Jacques Collin my father!—Oh, my poor mother!" and Lucien burst into tears.
"Coquart, read out to the prisoner that part of Carlos Herrera's examination in which he said that Lucien de Rubempre was his son."
The poet listened in silence, and with a look that was terrible to behold.
"I am done for!" he cried.
"A man is not done for who is faithful to the path of honor and truth," said the judge.
"But you will commit Jacques Collin for trial?" said Lucien.
"Undoubtedly," said Camusot, who aimed at making Lucien talk. "Speak out."
But in spite of all his persuasion and remonstrances, Lucien would say no more. Reflection had come too late, as it does to all men who are the slaves of impulse. There lies the difference between the poet and the man of action; one gives way to feeling to reproduce it in living images, his judgement comes in after; the other feels and judges both at once.
Lucien remained pale and gloomy; he saw himself at the bottom of the precipice, down which the examining judge had rolled him by the apparent candor which had entrapped his poet's soul. He had betrayed, not his benefactor, but an accomplice who had defended their position with the courage of a lion, and a skill that showed no flaw. Where Jacques Collin had saved everything by his daring, Lucien, the man of brains, had lost all by his lack of intelligence and reflection. This infamous lie against which he revolted had screened a yet more infamous truth.
Utterly confounded by the judge's skill, overpowered by his cruel dexterity, by the swiftness of the blows he had dealt him while making use of the errors of a life laid bare as probes to search his conscience, Lucien sat like an animal which the butcher's pole-axe had failed to kill. Free and innocent when he came before the judge, in a moment his own avowal had made him feel criminal.
To crown all, as a final grave irony, Camusot, cold and calm, pointed out to Lucien that his self-betrayal was the result of a misapprehension. Camusot was thinking of Jacques Collin's announcing himself as Lucien's father; while Lucien, wholly absorbed by his fear of seeing his confederacy with an escaped convict made public, had imitated the famous inadvertency of the murderers of Ibycus.
One of Royer-Collard's most famous achievements was proclaiming the constant triumph of natural feeling over engrafted sentiments, and defending the cause of anterior oaths by asserting that the law of hospitality, for instance, ought to be regarded as binding to the point of negativing the obligation of a judicial oath. He promulgated this theory, in the face of the world, from the French tribune; he boldly upheld conspirators, showing that it was human to be true to friendship rather than to the tyrannical laws brought out of the social arsenal to be adjusted to circumstances. And, indeed, natural rights have laws which have never been codified, but which are more effectual and better known than those laid down by society. Lucien had misapprehended, to his cost, the law of cohesion, which required him to be silent and leave Jacques Collin to protect himself; nay, more, he had accused him. In his own interests the man ought always to be, to him, Carlos Herrera.
Monsieur Camusot was rejoicing in his triumph; he had secured two criminals. He had crushed with the hand of justice one of the favorites of fashion, and he had found the undiscoverable Jacques Collin. He would be regarded as one of the cleverest of examining judges. So he left his prisoner in peace; but he was studying this speechless consternation, and he saw drops of sweat collect on the miserable face, swell and fall, mingled with two streams of tears.
"Why should you weep, Monsieur de Rubempre? You are, as I have told you, Mademoiselle Esther's legatee, she having no heirs nor near relations, and her property amounts to nearly eight millions of francs if the lost seven hundred and fifty thousand francs are recovered."
This was the last blow to the poor wretch. "If you do not lose your head for ten minutes," Jacques Collin had said in his note, and Lucien by keeping cool would have gained all his desire. He might have paid his debt to Jacques Collin and have cut him adrift, have been rich, and have married Mademoiselle de Grandlieu. Nothing could more eloquently demonstrate the power with which the examining judge is armed, as a consequence of the isolation or separation of persons under suspicion, or the value of such a communication as Asie had conveyed to Jacques Collin.
"Ah, monsieur!" replied Lucien, with the satirical bitterness of a man who makes a pedestal of his utter overthrow, "how appropriate is the phrase in legal slang 'to UNDERGO examination.' For my part, if I had to choose between the physical torture of past ages and the moral torture of our day, I would not hesitate to prefer the sufferings inflicted of old by the executioner.—What more do you want of me?" he added haughtily.
"In this place, monsieur," said the magistrate, answering the poet's pride with mocking arrogance, "I alone have a right to ask questions."
"I had the right to refuse to answer them," muttered the hapless Lucien, whose wits had come back to him with perfect lucidity.
"Coquart, read the minutes to the prisoner."
"I am the prisoner once more," said Lucien to himself.
While the clerk was reading, Lucien came to a determination which compelled him to smooth down Monsieur Camusot. When Coquart's drone ceased, the poet started like a man who has slept through a noise to which his ears are accustomed, and who is roused by its cessation.
"You have to sign the report of your examination," said the judge.
"And am I at liberty?" asked Lucien, ironical in his turn.
"Not yet," said Camusot; "but to-morrow, after being confronted with Jacques Collin, you will no doubt be free. Justice must now ascertain whether or no you are accessory to the crimes this man may have committed since his escape so long ago as 1820. However, you are no longer in the secret cells. I will write to the Governor to give you a better room."
"Shall I find writing materials?"
"You can have anything supplied to you that you ask for; I will give orders to that effect by the usher who will take you back."
Lucien mechanically signed the minutes and initialed the notes in obedience to Coquart's indications with the meekness of a resigned victim. A single fact will show what a state he was in better than the minutest description. The announcement that he would be confronted with Jacques Collin had at once dried the drops of sweat from his brow, and his dry eyes glittered with a terrible light. In short, he became, in an instant as brief as a lightning flash, what Jacques Collin was—a man of iron.
In men whose nature is like Lucien's, a nature which Jacques Collin had so thoroughly fathomed, these sudden transitions from a state of absolute demoralization to one that is, so to speak, metallic,—so extreme is the tension of every vital force,—are the most startling phenomena of mental vitality. The will surges up like the lost waters of a spring; it diffuses itself throughout the machinery that lies ready for the action of the unknown matter that constitutes it; and then the corpse is a man again, and the man rushes on full of energy for a supreme struggle.
Lucien laid Esther's letter next his heart, with the miniature she had returned to him. Then he haughtily bowed to Monsieur Camusot, and went off with a firm step down the corridors, between two gendarmes.
"That is a deep scoundrel!" said the judge to his clerk, to avenge himself for the crushing scorn the poet had displayed. "He thought he might save himself by betraying his accomplice."
"Of the two," said Coquart timidly, "the convict is the most thorough-paced."
"You are free for the rest of the day, Coquart," said the lawyer. "We have done enough. Send away any case that is waiting, to be called to-morrow.—Ah! and you must go at once to the public prosecutor's chambers and ask if he is still there; if so, ask him if he can give me a few minutes. Yes; he will not be gone," he added, looking at a common clock in a wooden case painted green with gilt lines. "It is but a quarter-past three."