Vautrin's Last Avatar/Section 1
"What is it, Madeleine?" asked Madame Camusot, seeing her maid come into the room with the particular air that servants assume in critical moments.
"Madame," said Madeleine, "monsieur has just come in from Court; but he looks so upset, and is in such a state, that I think perhaps it would be well for you to go to his room."
"Did he say anything?" asked Madame Camusot.
"No, madame; but we never have seen monsieur look like that; he looks as if he were going to be ill, his face is yellow—he seems all to pieces——"
Madame Camusot waited for no more; she rushed out of her room and flew to her husband's study. She found the lawyer sitting in an armchair, pale and dazed, his legs stretched out, his head against the back of it, his hands hanging limp, exactly as if he were sinking into idiotcy.
"What is the matter, my dear?" said the young woman in alarm.
"Oh! my poor Amelie, the most dreadful thing has happened—I am still trembling. Imagine, the public prosecutor—no, Madame de Serizy—that is—I do not know where to begin."
"Begin at the end," said Madame Camusot.
"Well, just as Monsieur Popinot, in the council room of the first Court, had put the last signature to the ruling of 'insufficient cause' for the apprehension of Lucien de Rubempre on the ground of my report, setting him at liberty—in fact, the whole thing was done, the clerk was going off with the minute book, and I was quit of the whole business—the President of the Court came in and took up the papers. 'You are releasing a dead man,' said he, with chilly irony; 'the young man is gone, as Monsieur de Bonald says, to appear before his natural Judge. He died of apoplexy——'
"I breathed again, thinking it was sudden illness.
"'As I understand you, Monsieur le President,' said Monsieur Popinot, 'it is a case of apoplexy like Pichegru's.'
"'Gentlemen,' said the President then, very gravely, 'you must please to understand that for the outside world Lucien de Rubempre died of an aneurism.'
"We all looked at each other. 'Very great people are concerned in this deplorable business,' said the President. 'God grant for your sake, Monsieur Camusot, though you did no less than your duty, that Madame de Serizy may not go mad from the shock she has had. She was carried away almost dead. I have just met our public prosecutor in a painful state of despair.'—'You have made a mess of it, my dear Camusot,' he added in my ear.—I assure you, my dear, as I came away I could hardly stand. My legs shook so that I dared not venture into the street. I went back to my room to rest. Then Coquart, who was putting away the papers of this wretched case, told me that a very handsome woman had taken the Conciergerie by storm, wanting to save Lucien, whom she was quite crazy about, and that she fainted away on seeing him hanging by his necktie to the window-bar of his room. The idea that the way in which I questioned that unhappy young fellow—who, between ourselves, was guilty in many ways—can have led to his committing suicide has haunted me ever since I left the Palais, and I feel constantly on the point of fainting——"
"What next? Are you going to think yourself a murderer because a suspected criminal hangs himself in prison just as you were about to release him?" cried Madame Camusot. "Why, an examining judge in such a case is like a general whose horse is killed under him!—That is all."
"Such a comparison, my dear, is at best but a jest, and jesting is out of place now. In this case the dead man clutches the living. All our hopes are buried in Lucien's coffin."
"Indeed?" said Madame Camusot, with deep irony.
"Yes, my career is closed. I shall be no more than an examining judge all my life. Before this fatal termination Monsieur de Granville was annoyed at the turn the preliminaries had taken; his speech to our President makes me quite certain that so long as Monsieur de Granville is public prosecutor I shall get no promotion."
Promotion! The terrible thought, which in these days makes a judge a mere functionary.
Formerly a magistrate was made at once what he was to remain. The three or four presidents' caps satisfied the ambitions of lawyers in each Parlement. An appointment as councillor was enough for a de Brosses or a Mole, at Dijon as much as in Paris. This office, in itself a fortune, required a fortune brought to it to keep it up.
In Paris, outside the Parlement, men of the long robe could hope only for three supreme appointments: those of Controller-General, Keeper of the Seals, or Chancellor. Below the Parlement, in the lower grades, the president of a lower Court thought himself quite of sufficient importance to be content to fill his chair to the end of his days.
Compare the position of a councillor in the High Court of Justice in Paris, in 1829, who has nothing but his salary, with that of a councillor to the Parlement in 1729. How great is the difference! In these days, when money is the universal social guarantee, magistrates are not required to have—as they used to have—fine private fortunes: hence we see deputies and peers of France heaping office on office, at once magistrates and legislators, borrowing dignity from other positions than those which ought to give them all their importance.
In short, a magistrate tries to distinguish himself for promotion as men do in the army, or in a Government office.
This prevailing thought, even if it does not affect his independence, is so well known and so natural, and its effects are so evident, that the law inevitably loses some of its majesty in the eyes of the public. And, in fact, the salaries paid by the State makes priests and magistrates mere employes. Steps to be gained foster ambition, ambition engenders subservience to power, and modern equality places the judge and the person to be judged in the same category at the bar of society. And so the two pillars of social order, Religion and Justice, are lowered in this nineteenth century, which asserts itself as progressive in all things.
"And why should you never be promoted?" said Amelie Camusot.
She looked half-jestingly at her husband, feeling the necessity of reviving the energies of the man who embodied her ambitions, and on whom she could play as on an instrument.
"Why despair?" she went on, with a shrug that sufficiently expressed her indifference as to the prisoner's end. "This suicide will delight Lucien's two enemies, Madame d'Espard and her cousin, the Comtesse du Chatelet. Madame d'Espard is on the best terms with the Keeper of the Seals; through her you can get an audience of His Excellency and tell him all the secrets of this business. Then, if the head of the law is on your side, what have you to fear from the president of your Court or the public prosecutor?"
"But, Monsieur and Madame de Serizy?" cried the poor man. "Madame de Serizy is gone mad, I tell you, and her madness is my doing, they say."
"Well, if she is out of her mind, O judge devoid of judgment," said Madame Camusot, laughing, "she can do you no harm.—Come, tell me all the incidents of the day."
"Bless me!" said Camusot, "just as I had cross-questioned the unhappy youth, and he had deposed that the self-styled Spanish priest is really Jacques Collin, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and Madame de Serizy sent me a note by a servant begging me not to examine him. It was all over!——"
"But you must have lost your head!" said Amelie. "What was to prevent you, being so sure as you are of your clerk's fidelity, from calling Lucien back, reassuring him cleverly, and revising the examination?"
"Why, you are as bad as Madame de Serizy; you laugh justice to scorn," said Camusot, who was incapable of flouting his profession. "Madame de Serizy seized the minutes and threw them into the fire."
"That is the right sort of woman! Bravo!" cried Madame Camusot.
"Madame de Serizy declared she would sooner see the Palais blown up than leave a young man who had enjoyed the favors of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and her own to stand at the bar of a Criminal court by the side of a convict!"
"But, Camusot," said Amelie, unable to suppress a superior smile, "your position is splendid——"
"Ah! yes, splendid!"
"You did your duty."
"But all wrong; and in spite of the jesuitical advice of Monsieur de Granville, who met me on the Quai Malaquais."
"At what hour?"
"At nine o'clock."
"Oh, Camusot!" cried Amelie, clasping and wringing her hands, "and I am always imploring you to be constantly on the alert.—Good heavens! it is not a man, but a barrow-load of stones that I have to drag on!—Why, Camusot, your public prosecutor was waiting for you.—He must have given you some warning."
"And you failed to understand him! If you are so deaf, you will indeed be an examining judge all your life without any knowledge whatever of the question.—At any rate, have sense enough to listen to me," she went on, silencing her husband, who was about to speak. "You think the matter is done for?" she asked.
Camusot looked at his wife as a country bumpkin looks at a conjurer.
"If the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and Madame de Serizy are compromised, you will find them both ready to patronize you," said Amelie. "Madame de Serizy will get you admission to the Keeper of the Seals, and you will tell him the secret history of the affair; then he will amuse the King with the story, for sovereigns always wish to see the wrong side of the tapestry and to know the real meaning of the events the public stare at open-mouthed. Henceforth there will be no cause to fear either the public prosecutor or Monsieur de Serizy."
"What a treasure such a wife is!" cried the lawyer, plucking up courage. "After all, I have unearthed Jacques Collin; I shall send him to his account at the Assize Court and unmask his crimes. Such a trial is a triumph in the career of an examining judge!"
"Camusot," Amelie began, pleased to see her husband rally from the moral and physical prostration into which he had been thrown by Lucien's suicide, "the President told you that you had blundered to the wrong side. Now you are blundering as much to the other—you are losing your way again, my dear."
The magistrate stood up, looking at his wife with a stupid stare.
"The King and the Keeper of the Seals will be glad, no doubt, to know the truth of this business, and at the same time much annoyed at seeing the lawyers on the Liberal side dragging important persons to the bar of opinion and of the Assize Court by their special pleading—such people as the Maufrigneuses, the Serizys, and the Grandlieus, in short, all who are directly or indirectly mixed up with this case."
"They are all in it; I have them all!" cried Camusot.
And Camusot walked up and down the room like Sganarelle on the stage when he is trying to get out of a scrape.
"Listen, Amelie," said he, standing in front of his wife. "An incident recurs to my mind, a trifle in itself, but, in my position, of vital importance.
"Realize, my dear, that this Jacques Collin is a giant of cunning, of dissimulation, of deceit.—He is—what shall I say?—the Cromwell of the hulks!—I never met such a scoundrel; he almost took me in.—But in examining a criminal, a little end of thread leads you to find a ball, is a clue to the investigation of the darkest consciences and obscurest facts.—When Jacques Collin saw me turning over the letters seized in Lucien de Rubempre's lodgings, the villain glanced at them with the evident intention of seeing whether some particular packet were among them, and he allowed himself to give a visible expression of satisfaction. This look, as of a thief valuing his booty, this movement, as of a man in danger saying to himself, 'My weapons are safe,' betrayed a world of things.
"Only you women, besides us and our examinees, can in a single flash epitomize a whole scene, revealing trickery as complicated as safety-locks. Volumes of suspicion may thus be communicated in a second. It is terrifying—life or death lies in a wink.
"Said I to myself, 'The rascal has more letters in his hands than these!'—Then the other details of the case filled my mind; I overlooked the incident, for I thought I should have my men face to face, and clear up this point afterwards. But it may be considered as quite certain that Jacques Collin, after the fashion of such wretches, has hidden in some safe place the most compromising of the young fellow's letters, adored as he was by——"
"And yet you are afraid, Camusot? Why, you will be President of the Supreme Court much sooner than I expected!" cried Madame Camusot, her face beaming. "Now, then, you must proceed so as to give satisfaction to everybody, for the matter is looking so serious that it might quite possibly be snatched from us.—Did they not take the proceedings out of Popinot's hands to place them in yours when Madame d'Espard tried to get a Commission in Lunacy to incapacitate her husband?" she added, in reply to her husband's gesture of astonishment. "Well, then, might not the public prosecutor, who takes such keen interest in the honor of Monsieur and Madame de Serizy, carry the case to the Upper Court and get a councillor in his interest to open a fresh inquiry?"
"Bless me, my dear, where did you study criminal law?" cried Camusot. "You know everything; you can give me points."
"Why, do you believe that, by to-morrow morning, Monsieur de Granville will not have taken fright at the possible line of defence that might be adopted by some liberal advocate whom Jacques Collin would manage to secure; for lawyers will be ready to pay him to place the case in their hands!—And those ladies know their danger quite as well as you do—not to say better; they will put themselves under the protection of the public prosecutor, who already sees their families unpleasantly close to the prisoner's bench, as a consequence of the coalition between this convict and Lucien de Rubempre, betrothed to Mademoiselle de Grandlieu—Lucien, Esther's lover, Madame de Maufrigneuse's former lover, Madame de Serizy's darling. So you must conduct the affair in such a way as to conciliate the favor of your public prosecutor, the gratitude of Monsieur de Serizy, and that of the Marquise d'Espard and the Comtesse du Chatelet, to reinforce Madame de Maufrigneuse's influence by that of the Grandlieus, and to gain the complimentary approval of your President.
"I will undertake to deal with the ladies—d'Espard, de Maufrigneuse, and de Grandlieu.
"You must go to-morrow morning to see the public prosecutor. Monsieur de Granville is a man who does not live with his wife; for ten years he had for his mistress a Mademoiselle de Bellefeuille, who bore him illegitimate children—didn't she? Well, such a magistrate is no saint; he is a man like any other; he can be won over; he must give a hold somewhere; you must discover the weak spot and flatter him; ask his advice, point out the dangers of attending the case; in short, try to get him into the same boat, and you will be——"
"I ought to kiss your footprints!" exclaimed Camusot, interrupting his wife, putting his arm round her, and pressing her to his heart. "Amelie, you have saved me!"
"I brought you in tow from Alencon to Mantes, and from Mantes to the Metropolitan Court," replied Amelie. "Well, well, be quite easy!—I intend to be called Madame la Presidente within five years' time. But, my dear, pray always think over everything a long time before you come to any determination. A judge's business is not that of a fireman; your papers are never in a blaze, you have plenty of time to think; so in your place blunders are inexcusable."
"The whole strength of my position lies in identifying the sham Spanish priest with Jacques Collin," the judge said, after a long pause. "When once that identity is established, even if the Bench should take the credit of the whole affair, that will still be an ascertained fact which no magistrate, judge, or councillor can get rid of. I shall do like the boys who tie a tin kettle to a cat's tail; the inquiry, whoever carries it on, will make Jacques Collin's tin kettle clank."
"Bravo!" said Amelie.
"And the public prosecutor would rather come to an understanding with me than with any one else, since I am the only man who can remove the Damocles' sword that hangs over the heart of the Faubourg Saint-Germain.
"Only you have no idea how hard it will be to achieve that magnificent result. Just now, when I was with Monsieur de Granville in his private office, we agreed, he and I, to take Jacques Collin at his own valuation—a canon of the Chapter of Toledo, Carlos Herrera. We consented to recognize his position as a diplomatic envoy, and allow him to be claimed by the Spanish Embassy. It was in consequence of this plan that I made out the papers by which Lucien de Rubempre was released, and revised the minutes of the examinations, washing the prisoners as white as snow.
"To-morrow, Rastignac, Bianchon, and some others are to be confronted with the self-styled Canon of Toledo; they will not recognize him as Jacques Collin who was arrested in their presence ten years ago in a cheap boarding-house, where they knew him under the name of Vautrin."
There was a short silence, while Madame Camusot sat thinking.
"Are you sure your man is Jacques Collin?" she asked.
"Positive," said the lawyer, "and so is the public prosecutor."
"Well, then, try to make some exposure at the Palais de Justice without showing your claws too much under your furred cat's paws. If your man is still in the secret cells, go straight to the Governor of the Conciergerie and contrive to have the convict publicly identified. Instead of behaving like a child, act like the ministers of police under despotic governments, who invent conspiracies against the monarch to have the credit of discovering them and making themselves indispensable. Put three families in danger to have the glory of rescuing them."
"That luckily reminds me!" cried Camusot. "My brain is so bewildered that I had quite forgotten an important point. The instructions to place Jacques Collin in a private room were taken by Coquart to Monsieur Gault, the Governor of the prison. Now, Bibi-Lupin, Jacques Collin's great enemy, has taken steps to have three criminals, who know the man, transferred from La Force to the Conciergerie; if he appears in the prison-yard to-morrow, a terrific scene is expected——"
"Jacques Collin, my dear, was treasurer of the money owned by the prisoners in the hulks, amounting to considerable sums; now, he is supposed to have spent it all to maintain the deceased Lucien in luxury, and he will be called to account. There will be such a battle, Bibi-Lupin tells me, as will require the intervention of the warders, and the secret will be out. Jacques Collin's life is in danger.
"Now, if I get to the Palais early enough I may record the evidence of identity."
"Oh, if only his creditors should take him off your hands! You would be thought such a clever fellow!—Do not go to Monsieur de Granville's room; wait for him in his Court with that formidable great gun. It is a loaded cannon turned on the three most important families of the Court and Peerage. Be bold: propose to Monsieur de Granville that he should relieve you of Jacques Collin by transferring him to La Force, where the convicts know how to deal with those who betray them.
"I will go to the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, who will take me to the Grandlieus. Possibly I may see Monsieur de Serizy. Trust me to sound the alarm everywhere. Above all, send me a word we will agree upon to let me know if the Spanish priest is officially recognized as Jacques Collin. Get your business at the Palais over by two o'clock, and I will have arranged for you to have an interview with the Keeper of the Seals; perhaps I may find him with the Marquise d'Espard."
Camusot stood squarely with a look of admiration that made his knowing wife smile.
"Now, come to dinner and be cheerful," said she in conclusion. "Why, you see! We have been only two years in Paris, and here you are on the highroad to be made Councillor before the end of the year. From that to the Presidency of a court, my dear, there is no gulf but what some political service may bridge."
This conjugal sitting shows how greatly the deeds and the lightest words of Jacques Collin, the lowest personage in this drama, involved the honor of the families among whom he had planted his now dead protege.