Vautrin's Last Avatar/Section 11
The office-boy opened the door, and Jacques Collin came in, quite calm and unmoved.
"You wished to speak to me," said Monsieur de Granville. "I am ready to listen."
"Monsieur le Comte, I am Jacques Collin. I surrender!"
Camusot started; the public prosecutor was immovable.
"As you may suppose, I have my reasons for doing this," said Jacques Collin, with an ironical glance at the two magistrates. "I must inconvenience you greatly; for if I had remained a Spanish priest, you would simply have packed me off with an escort of gendarmes as far as the frontier by Bayonne, and there Spanish bayonets would have relieved you of me."
The lawyers sat silent and imperturbable.
"Monsieur le Comte," the convict went on, "the reasons which have led me to this step are yet more pressing than this, but devilish personal to myself. I can tell them to no one but you.—If you are afraid——"
"Afraid of whom? Of what?" said the Comte de Granville.
In attitude and expression, in the turn of his head, his demeanor and his look, this distinguished judge was at this moment a living embodiment of the law which ought to supply us with the noblest examples of civic courage. In this brief instant he was on a level with the magistrates of the old French Parlement in the time of the civil wars, when the presidents found themselves face to face with death, and stood, made of marble, like the statues that commemorate them.
"Afraid to be alone with an escaped convict!"
"Leave us, Monsieur Camusot," said the public prosecutor at once.
"I was about to suggest that you should bind me hand and foot," Jacques Collin coolly added, with an ominous glare at the two gentlemen. He paused, and then said with great gravity:
"Monsieur le Comte, you had my esteem, but you now command my admiration."
"Then you think you are formidable?" said the magistrate, with a look of supreme contempt.
"Think myself formidable?" retorted the convict. "Why think about it? I am, and I know it."
Jacques Collin took a chair and sat down, with all the ease of a man who feels himself a match for his adversary in an interview where they would treat on equal terms.
At this instant Monsieur Camusot, who was on the point of closing the door behind him, turned back, came up to Monsieur de Granville, and handed him two folded papers.
"Look!" said he to Monsieur de Granville, pointing to one of them.
"Call back Monsieur Gault!" cried the Comte de Granville, as he read the name of Madame de Maufrigneuse's maid—a woman he knew.
The governor of the prison came in.
"Describe the woman who came to see the prisoner," said the public prosecutor in his ear.
"Short, thick-set, fat, and square," replied Monsieur Gault.
"The woman to whom this permit was given is tall and thin," said Monsieur de Granville. "How old was she?"
"This concerns me, gentlemen?" said Jacques Collin. "Come, do not puzzle your heads. That person is my aunt, a very plausible aunt, a woman, and an old woman. I can save you a great deal of trouble. You will never find my aunt unless I choose. If we beat about the bush, we shall never get forwarder."
"Monsieur l'Abbe has lost his Spanish accent," observed Monsieur Gault; "he does not speak broken French."
"Because things are in a desperate mess, my dear Monsieur Gault," replied Jacques Collin with a bitter smile, as he addressed the Governor by name.
Monsieur Gault went quickly up to his chief, and said in a whisper, "Beware of that man, Monsieur le Comte; he is mad with rage."
Monsieur de Granville gazed slowly at Jacques Collin, and saw that he was controlling himself; but he saw, too, that what the governor said was true. This treacherous demeanor covered the cold but terrible nervous irritation of a savage. In Jacques Collin's eyes were the lurid fires of a volcanic eruption, his fists were clenched. He was a tiger gathering himself up to spring.
"Leave us," said the Count gravely to the prison governor and the judge.
"You did wisely to send away Lucien's murderer!" said Jacques Collin, without caring whether Camusot heard him or no; "I could not contain myself, I should have strangled him."
Monsieur de Granville felt a chill; never had he seen a man's eyes so full of blood, or cheeks so colorless, or muscles so set.
"And what good would that murder have done you?" he quietly asked.
"You avenge society, or fancy you avenge it, every day, monsieur, and you ask me to give a reason for revenge? Have you never felt vengeance throbbing in surges in your veins? Don't you know that it was that idiot of a judge who killed him?—For you were fond of my Lucien, and he loved you! I know you by heart, sir. The dear boy would tell me everything at night when he came in; I used to put him to bed as a nurse tucks up a child, and I made him tell me everything. He confided everything to me, even his least sensations!
"The best of mothers never loved an only son so tenderly as I loved that angel! If only you knew! All that is good sprang up in his heart as flowers grow in the fields. He was weak; it was his only fault, weak as the string of a lyre, which is so strong when it is taut. These are the most beautiful natures; their weakness is simply tenderness, admiration, the power of expanding in the sunshine of art, of love, of the beauty God has made for man in a thousand shapes!—In short, Lucien was a woman spoiled. Oh! what could I not say to that brute beast who had just gone out of the room!
"I tell you, monsieur, in my degree, as a prisoner before his judge, I did what God A'mighty would have done for His Son if, hoping to save Him, He had gone with Him before Pilate!"
A flood of tears fell from the convict's light tawny eyes, which just now had glared like those of a wolf starved by six months' snow in the plains of the Ukraine. He went on:
"That dolt would listen to nothing, and he killed the boy!—I tell you, sir, I bathed the child's corpse in my tears, crying out to the Power I do not know, and which is above us all! I, who do not believe in God!—(For if I were not a materialist, I should not be myself.)
"I have told everything when I say that. You don't know—no man knows what suffering is. I alone know it. The fire of anguish so dried up my tears, that all last night I could not weep. Now I can, because I feel that you can understand me. I saw you, sitting there just now, an Image of Justice. Oh! monsieur, may God—for I am beginning to believe in Him—preserve you from ever being as bereft as I am! That cursed judge has robbed me of my soul, Monsieur le Comte! At this moment they are burying my life, my beauty, my virtue, my conscience, all my powers! Imagine a dog from which a chemist had extracted the blood.—That's me! I am that dog——
"And that is why I have come to tell you that I am Jacques Collin, and to give myself up. I made up my mind to it this morning when they came and carried away the body I was kissing like a madman—like a mother—as the Virgin must have kissed Jesus in the tomb.
"I meant then to give myself up to justice without driving any bargain; but now I must make one, and you shall know why."
"Are you speaking to the judge or to Monsieur de Granville?" asked the magistrate.
The two men, Crime and Law, looked at each other. The magistrate had been strongly moved by the convict; he felt a sort of divine pity for the unhappy wretch; he understood what his life and feelings were. And besides, the magistrate—for a magistrate is always a magistrate—knowing nothing of Jacques Collin's career since his escape from prison, fancied that he could impress the criminal who, after all, had only been sentenced for forgery. He would try the effect of generosity on this nature, a compound, like bronze, of various elements, of good and evil.
Again, Monsieur de Granville, who had reached the age of fifty-three without ever having been loved, admired a tender soul, as all men do who have not been loved. This despair, the lot of many men to whom women can only give esteem and friendship, was perhaps the unknown bond on which a strong intimacy was based that united the Comtes de Bauvan, de Granville, and de Serizy; for a common misfortune brings souls into unison quite as much as a common joy.
"You have the future before you," said the public prosecutor, with an inquisitorial glance at the dejected villain.
The man only expressed by a shrug the utmost indifference to his fate.
"Lucien made a will by which he leaves you three hundred thousand francs."
"Poor, poor chap! poor boy!" cried Jacques Collin. "Always too honest! I was all wickedness, while he was goodness—noble, beautiful, sublime! Such lovely souls cannot be spoiled. He had taken nothing from me but my money, sir."
This utter and complete surrender of his individuality, which the magistrate vainly strove to rally, so thoroughly proved his dreadful words, that Monsieur de Granville was won over to the criminal. The public prosecutor remained!
"If you really care for nothing," said Monsieur de Granville, "what did you want to say to me?"
"Well, is it not something that I have given myself up? You were getting warm, but you had not got me; besides, you would not have known what to do with me——"
"What an antagonist!" said the magistrate to himself.
"Monsieur le Comte, you are about to cut off the head of an innocent man, and I have discovered the culprit," said Jacques Collin, wiping away his tears. "I have come here not for their sakes, but for yours. I have come to spare you remorse, for I love all who took an interest in Lucien, just as I will give my hatred full play against all who helped to cut off his life—men or women!
"What can a convict more or less matter to me?" he went on, after a short pause. "A convict is no more in my eyes than an emmet is in yours. I am like the Italian brigands—fine men they are! If a traveler is worth ever so little more than the charge of their musket, they shoot him dead.
"I thought only of you.—I got the young man to make a clean breast of it; he was bound to trust me, we had been chained together. Theodore is very good stuff; he thought he was doing his mistress a good turn by undertaking to sell or pawn stolen goods; but he is no more guilty of the Nanterre job than you are. He is a Corsican; it is their way to revenge themselves and kill each other like flies. In Italy and Spain a man's life is not respected, and the reason is plain. There we are believed to have a soul in our own image, which survives us and lives for ever. Tell that to your analyst! It is only among atheistical or philosophical nations that those who mar human life are made to pay so dearly; and with reason from their point of view—a belief only in matter and in the present.
"If Calvi had told you who the woman was from whom he obtained the stolen goods, you would not have found the real murderer; he is already in your hands; but his accomplice, whom poor Theodore will not betray because she is a woman——Well, every calling has its point of honor; convicts and thieves have theirs!
"Now, I know the murderer of those two women and the inventors of that bold, strange plot; I have been told every detail. Postpone Calvi's execution, and you shall know all; but you must give me your word that he shall be sent safe back to the hulks and his punishment commuted. A man so miserable as I am does not take the trouble to lie—you know that. What I have told you is the truth."
"To you, Jacques Collin, though it is degrading Justice, which ought never to condescend to such a compromise, I believe I may relax the rigidity of my office and refer the case to my superiors."
"Will you grant me this life?"
"Monsieur, I implore you to give me your word; it will be enough."
Monsieur Granville drew himself up with offended pride.
"I hold in my hand the honor of three families, and you only the lives of three convicts in yours," said Jacques Collin. "I have the stronger hand."
"But you may be sent back to the dark cells: then, what will you do?" said the public prosecutor.
"Oh! we are to play the game out then!" said Jacques Collin. "I was speaking as man to man—I was talking to Monsieur de Granville. But if the public prosecutor is my adversary, I take up the cards and hold them close.—And if only you had given me your word, I was ready to give you back the letters that Mademoiselle Clotilde de Grandlieu——"
This was said with a tone, an audacity, and a look which showed Monsieur de Granville, that against such an adversary the least blunder was dangerous.
"And is that all you ask?" said the magistrate.
"I will speak for myself now," said Jacques. "The honor of the Grandlieu family is to pay for the commutation of Theodore's sentence. It is giving much to get very little. For what is a convict in penal servitude for life? If he escapes, you can so easily settle the score. It is drawing a bill on the guillotine! Only, as he was consigned to Rochefort with no amiable intentions, you must promise me that he shall be quartered at Toulon, and well treated there.
"Now, for myself, I want something more. I have the packets of letters from Madame de Serizy and Madame de Maufrigneuse.—And what letters!—I tell you, Monsieur le Comte, prostitutes, when they write letters, assume a style of sentiment; well, sir, fine ladies, who are accustomed to style and sentiment all day long, write as prostitutes behave. Philosophers may know the reasons for this contrariness. I do not care to seek them. Woman is an inferior animal; she is ruled by her instincts. To my mind a woman has no beauty who is not like a man.
"So your smart duchesses, who are men in brains only, write masterpieces. Oh! they are splendid from beginning to end, like Piron's famous ode!——"
"Would you like to see them?" said Jacques Collin, with a laugh.
The magistrate felt ashamed.
"I cannot give them to you to read. But, there; no nonsense; this is business and all above board, I suppose?—You must give me back the letters, and allow no one to play the spy or to follow or to watch the person who will bring them to me."
"That will take time," said Monsieur de Granville.
"No. It is half-past nine," replied Jacques Collin, looking at the clock; "well, in four minutes you will have a letter from each of these ladies, and after reading them you will countermand the guillotine. If matters were not as they are, you would not see me taking things so easy.—The ladies indeed have had warning."—Monsieur de Granville was startled.—"They must be making a stir by now; they are going to bring the Keeper of the Seals into the fray—they may even appeal to the King, who knows?—Come, now, will you give me your word that you will forget all that has passed, and neither follow, nor send any one to follow, that person for a whole hour?"
"I promise it."
"Very well; you are not the man to deceive an escaped convict. You are a chip of the block of which Turennes and Condes are made, and would keep your word to a thief.—In the Salle des Pas-Perdus there is at this moment a beggar woman in rags, an old woman, in the very middle of the hall. She is probably gossiping with one of the public writers, about some lawsuit over a party-wall perhaps; send your office messenger to fetch her, saying these words, 'Dabor ti Mandana' (the Boss wants you). She will come.
"But do not be unnecessarily cruel. Either you accept my terms or you do not choose to be mixed up in a business with a convict.—I am only a forger, you will remember!—Well, do not leave Calvi to go through the terrors of preparation for the scaffold."
"I have already countermanded the execution," said Monsieur de Granville to Jacques Collin. "I would not have Justice beneath you in dignity."
Jacques Collin looked at the public prosecutor with a sort of amazement, and saw him ring his bell.
"Will you promise not to escape? Give me your word, and I shall be satisfied. Go and fetch the woman."
The office-boy came in.
"Felix, send away the gendarmes," said Monsieur de Granville.
Jacques Collin was conquered.
In this duel with the magistrate he had tried to be the superior, the stronger, the more magnanimous, and the magistrate had crushed him. At the same time, the convict felt himself the superior, inasmuch as he had tricked the Law; he had convinced it that the guilty man was innocent, and had fought for a man's head and won it; but this advantage must be unconfessed, secret and hidden, while the magistrate towered above him majestically in the eye of day.