Vautrin's Last Avatar/Section 6

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Vautrin's Last Avatar by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 6

The least sympathetic reader, who has no pity for this strange race, may conceive of the state of mind of Jacques Collin, finding himself between the dead body of the idol whom he had been bewailing during five hours that night, and the imminent end of his former comrade—the dead body of Theodore, the young Corsican. Only to see the boy would demand extraordinary cleverness; to save him would need a miracle; but he was thinking of it.

For the better comprehension of what Jacques Collin proposed to attempt, it must be remarked that murderers and thieves, all the men who people the galleys, are not so formidable as is generally supposed. With a few rare exceptions these creatures are all cowards, in consequence no doubt, of the constant alarms which weigh on their spirit. The faculties being perpetually on the stretch in thieving, and the success of a stroke of business depending on the exertion of every vital force, with a readiness of wit to match their dexterity of hand, and an alertness which exhausts the nervous system; these violent exertions of will once over, they become stupid, just as a singer or a dancer drops quite exhausted after a fatiguing pas seul, or one of those tremendous duets which modern composers inflict on the public.

Malefactors are, in fact, so entirely bereft of common sense, or so much oppressed by fear, that they become absolutely childish. Credulous to the last degree, they are caught by the bird-lime of the simplest snare. When they have done a successful job, they are in such a state of prostration that they immediately rush into the debaucheries they crave for; they get drunk on wine and spirits, and throw themselves madly into the arms of their women to recover composure by dint of exhausting their strength, and to forget their crime by forgetting their reason.

Then they are at the mercy of the police. When once they are in custody they lose their head, and long for hope so blindly that they believe anything; indeed, there is nothing too absurd for them to accept it. An instance will suffice to show how far the simplicity of a criminal who has been nabbed will carry him. Bibi-Lupin, not long before, had extracted a confession from a murderer of nineteen by making him believe that no one under age was ever executed. When this lad was transferred to the Conciergerie to be sentenced after the rejection of his appeal, this terrible man came to see him.

"Are you sure you are not yet twenty?" said he.

"Yes, I am only nineteen and a half."

"Well, then," replied Bibi-Lupin, "you may be quite sure of one thing—you will never see twenty."

"Why?"

"Because you will be scragged within three days," replied the police agent.

The murderer, who had believed, even after sentence was passed, that a minor would never be executed, collapsed like an omelette soufflee.

Such men, cruel only from the necessity for suppressive evidence, for they murder only to get rid of witnesses (and this is one of the arguments adduced by those who desire the abrogation of capital punishment),—these giants of dexterity and skill, whose sleight of hand, whose rapid sight, whose every sense is as alert as that of a savage, are heroes of evil only on the stage of their exploits. Not only do their difficulties begin as soon as the crime is committed, for they are as much bewildered by the need for concealing the stolen goods as they were depressed by necessity—but they are as weak as a woman in childbed. The vehemence of their schemes is terrific; in success they become like children. In a word, their nature is that of the wild beast—easy to kill when it is full fed. In prison these strange beings are men in dissimulation and in secretiveness, which never yields till the last moment, when they are crushed and broken by the tedium of imprisonment.

It may hence be understood how it was that the three convicts, instead of betraying their chief, were eager to serve him; and as they suspected he was now the owner of the stolen seven hundred and fifty thousand francs, they admired him for his calm resignation, under bolt and bar of the Conciergerie, believing him capable of protecting them all.

When Monsieur Gault left the sham priest, he returned through the parlor to his office, and went in search of Bibi-Lupin, who for twenty minutes, since Jacques Collin had gone downstairs, had been on the watch with his eye at a peephole in a window looking out on the prison-yard.

"Not one of them recognized him," said Monsieur Gault, "and Napolitas, who is on duty, did not hear a word. The poor priest all through the night, in his deep distress, did not say a word which could imply that his gown covers Jacques Collin."

"That shows that he is used to prison life," said the police agent.

Napolitas, Bibi-Lupin's secretary, being unknown to the criminals then in the Conciergerie, was playing the part of the young gentlemen imprisoned for forgery.

"Well, but he wishes to be allowed to hear the confession of the young fellow who is sentenced to death," said the governor.

"To be sure! That is our last chance," cried Bibi-Lupin. "I had forgotten that. Theodore Calvi, the young Corsican, was the man chained to Jacques Collin; they say that on the hulks Jacques Collin made him famous pads——"

The convicts on the galleys contrive a kind of pad to slip between their skin and the fetters to deaden the pressure of the iron ring on their ankles and instep; these pads, made of tow and rags, are known as patarasses.

"Who is warder over the man?" asked Bibi-Lupin.

"Coeur la Virole."

"Very well, I will go and make up as a gendarme, and be on the watch; I shall hear what they say. I will be even with them."

"But if it should be Jacques Collin are you not afraid of his recognizing you and throttling you?" said the governor to Bibi-Lupin.

"As a gendarme I shall have my sword," replied the other; "and, besides, if he is Jacques Collin, he will never do anything that will risk his neck; and if he is a priest, I shall be safe."

"Then you have no time to lose," said Monsieur Gault; "it is half-past eight. Father Sauteloup has just read the reply to his appeal, and Monsieur Sanson is waiting in the order room."

"Yes, it is to-day's job, the 'widow's huzzars'" (les hussards de la veuve, another horrible name for the functionaries of the guillotine) "are ordered out," replied Bibi-Lupin. "Still, I cannot wonder that the prosecutor-general should hesitate; the boy has always declared that he is innocent, and there is, in my opinion, no conclusive evidence against him."

"He is a thorough Corsican," said Monsieur Gault; "he has not said a word, and has held firm all through."

The last words of the governor of the prison summed up the dismal tale of a man condemned to die. A man cut off from among the living by law belongs to the Bench. The Bench is paramount; it is answerable to nobody, it obeys its own conscience. The prison belongs to the Bench, which controls it absolutely. Poetry has taken possession of this social theme, "the man condemned to death"—a subject truly apt to strike the imagination! And poetry has been sublime on it. Prose has no resource but fact; still, the fact is appalling enough to hold its own against verse. The existence of a condemned man who has not confessed his crime, or betrayed his accomplices, is one of fearful torment. This is no case of iron boots, of water poured into the stomach, or of limbs racked by hideous machinery; it is hidden and, so to speak, negative torture. The condemned wretch is given over to himself with a companion whom he cannot but trust.

The amiability of modern philanthropy fancies it has understood the dreadful torment of isolation, but this is a mistake. Since the abolition of torture, the Bench, in a natural anxiety to reassure the too sensitive consciences of the jury, had guessed what a terrible auxiliary isolation would prove to justice in seconding remorse.

Solitude is void; and nature has as great a horror of a moral void as she has of a physical vacuum. Solitude is habitable only to a man of genius who can people it with ideas, the children of the spiritual world; or to one who contemplates the works of the Creator, to whom it is bright with the light of heaven, alive with the breath and voice of God. Excepting for these two beings—so near to Paradise—solitude is to the mind what torture is to the body. Between solitude and the torture-chamber there is all the difference that there is between a nervous malady and a surgical disease. It is suffering multiplied by infinitude. The body borders on the infinite through its nerves, as the spirit does through thought. And, in fact, in the annals of the Paris law courts the criminals who do not confess can be easily counted.

This terrible situation, which in some cases assumes appalling importance—in politics, for instance, when a dynasty or a state is involved—will find a place in the HUMAN COMEDY. But here a description of the stone box in which after the Restoration, the law shut up a man condemned to death in Paris, may serve to give an idea of the terrors of a felon's last day on earth.

Before the Revolution of July there was in the Conciergerie, and indeed there still is, a condemned cell. This room, backing on the governor's office, is divided from it by a thick wall in strong masonry, and the other side of it is formed by a wall seven or eight feet thick, which supports one end of the immense Salle des Pas-Perdus. It is entered through the first door in the long dark passage in which the eye loses itself when looking from the middle of the vaulted gateway. This ill-omened room is lighted by a funnel, barred by a formidable grating, and hardly perceptible on going into the Conciergerie yard, for it has been pierced in the narrow space between the office window close to the railing of the gateway, and the place where the office clerk sits—a den like a cupboard contrived by the architect at the end of the entrance court.

This position accounts for the fact that the room thus enclosed between four immensely thick walls should have been devoted, when the Conciergerie was reconstituted, to this terrible and funereal service. Escape is impossible. The passage, leading to the cells for solitary confinement and to the women's quarters, faces the stove where gendarmes and warders are always collected together. The air-hole, the only outlet to the open air, is nine feet above the floor, and looks out on the first court, which is guarded by sentries at the outer gate. No human power can make any impression on the walls. Besides, a man sentenced to death is at once secured in a straitwaistcoat, a garment which precludes all use of the hands; he is chained by one foot to his camp bed, and he has a fellow prisoner to watch and attend on him. The room is paved with thick flags, and the light is so dim that it is hard to see anything.

It is impossible not to feel chilled to the marrow on going in, even now, though for sixteen years the cell has never been used, in consequence of the changes effected in Paris in the treatment of criminals under sentence. Imagine the guilty man there with his remorse for company, in silence and darkness, two elements of horror, and you will wonder how he ever failed to go mad. What a nature must that be whose temper can resist such treatment, with the added misery of enforced idleness and inaction.

And yet Theodore Calvi, a Corsican, now twenty-seven years of age, muffled, as it were, in a shroud of absolute reserve, had for two months held out against the effects of this dungeon and the insidious chatter of the prisoner placed to entrap him.

These were the strange circumstances under which the Corsican had been condemned to death. Though the case is a very curious one, our account of it must be brief. It is impossible to introduce a long digression at the climax of a narrative already so much prolonged, since its only interest is in so far as it concerns Jacques Collin, the vertebral column, so to speak, which, by its sinister persistency, connects Le Pere Goriot with Illusions perdues, and Illusions perdues with this Study. And, indeed, the reader's imagination will be able to work out the obscure case which at this moment was causing great uneasiness to the jury of the sessions, before whom Theodore Calvi had been tried. For a whole week, since the criminal's appeal had been rejected by the Supreme Court, Monsieur de Granville had been worrying himself over the case, and postponing from day to day the order for carrying out the sentence, so anxious was he to reassure the jury by announcing that on the threshold of death the accused had confessed the crime.

A poor widow of Nanterre, whose dwelling stood apart from the township, which is situated in the midst of the infertile plain lying between Mount-Valerian, Saint-Germain, the hills of Sartrouville, and Argenteuil, had been murdered and robbed a few days after coming into her share of an unexpected inheritance. This windfall amounted to three thousand francs, a dozen silver spoons and forks, a gold watch and chain and some linen. Instead of depositing the three thousand francs in Paris, as she was advised by the notary of the wine-merchant who had left it her, the old woman insisted on keeping it by her. In the first place, she had never seen so much money of her own, and then she distrusted everybody in every kind of affairs, as most common and country folk do. After long discussion with a wine-merchant of Nanterre, a relation of her own and of the wine-merchant who had left her the money, the widow decided on buying an annuity, on selling her house at Nanterre, and living in the town of Saint-Germain.

The house she was living in, with a good-sized garden enclosed by a slight wooden fence, was the poor sort of dwelling usually built by small landowners in the neighborhood of Paris. It had been hastily constructed, with no architectural design, of cement and rubble, the materials commonly used near Paris, where, as at Nanterre, they are extremely abundant, the ground being everywhere broken by quarries open to the sky. This is the ordinary hut of the civilized savage. The house consisted of a ground floor and one floor above, with garrets in the roof.

The quarryman, her deceased husband, and the builder of this dwelling, had put strong iron bars to all the windows; the front door was remarkably thick. The man knew that he was alone there in the open country—and what a country! His customers were the principal master-masons in Paris, so the more important materials for his house, which stood within five hundred yards of his quarry, had been brought out in his own carts returning empty. He could choose such as suited him where houses were pulled down, and got them very cheap. Thus the window frames, the iron-work, the doors, shutters, and wooden fittings were all derived from sanctioned pilfering, presents from his customers, and good ones, carefully chosen. Of two window-frames, he could take the better.

The house, entered from a large stable-yard, was screened from the road by a wall; the gate was of strong iron-railing. Watch-dogs were kept in the stables, and a little dog indoors at night. There was a garden of more than two acres behind.

His widow, without children, lived here with only a woman servant. The sale of the quarry had paid off the owner's debts; he had been dead about two years. This isolated house was the widow's sole possession, and she kept fowls and cows, selling the eggs and milk at Nanterre. Having no stableboy or carter or quarryman—her husband had made them do every kind of work—she no longer kept up the garden; she only gathered the few greens and roots that the stony ground allowed to grow self-sown.

The price of the house, with the money she had inherited, would amount to seven or eight thousand francs, and she could fancy herself living very happily at Saint-Germain on seven or eight hundred francs a year, which she thought she could buy with her eight thousand francs. She had had many discussions over this with the notary at Saint-Germain, for she refused to hand her money over for an annuity to the wine-merchant at Nanterre, who was anxious to have it.

Under these circumstances, then, after a certain day the widow Pigeau and her servant were seen no more. The front gate, the house door, the shutters, all were closed. At the end of three days, the police, being informed, made inquisition. Monsieur Popinot, the examining judge, and the public prosecutor arrived from Paris, and this was what they reported:—

Neither the outer gate nor the front door showed any marks of violence. The key was in the lock of the door, inside. Not a single bar had been wretched; the locks, shutters, and bolts were all untampered with. The walls showed no traces that could betray the passage of the criminals. The chimney-posts, of red clay, afforded no opportunity for ingress or escape, and the roofing was sound and unbroken, showing no damage by violence.

On entering the first-floor rooms, the magistrates, the gendarmes, and Bibi-Lupin found the widow Pigeau strangled in her bed and the woman strangled in hers, each by means of the bandana she wore as a nightcap. The three thousand francs were gone, with the silver-plate and the trinkets. The two bodies were decomposing, as were those of the little dog and of a large yard-dog.

The wooden palings of the garden were examined; none were broken. The garden paths showed no trace of footsteps. The magistrate thought it probable that the robber had walked on the grass to leave no foot-prints if he had come that way; but how could he have got into the house? The back door to the garden had an outer guard of three iron bars, uninjured; and there, too, the key was in the lock inside, as in the front door.

All these impossibilities having been duly noted by Monsieur Popinot, by Bibi-Lupin, who stayed there a day to examine every detail, by the public prosecutor himself, and by the sergeant of the gendarmerie at Nanterre, this murder became an agitating mystery, in which the Law and the Police were nonplussed.

This drama, published in the Gazette des Tribunaux, took place in the winter of 1828-29. God alone knows what excitement this puzzling crime occasioned in Paris! But Paris has a new drama to watch every morning, and forgets everything. The police, on the contrary, forgets nothing.

Three months after this fruitless inquiry, a girl of the town, whose extravagance had invited the attention of Bibi-Lupin's agents, who watched her as being the ally of several thieves, tried to persuade a woman she knew to pledge twelve silver spoons and forks and a gold watch and chain. The friend refused. This came to Bibi-Lupin's ears, and he remembered the plate and the watch and chain stolen at Nanterre. The commissioners of the Mont-de-Piete, and all the receivers of stolen goods, were warned, while Manon la Blonde was subjected to unremitting scrutiny.

It was very soon discovered that Manon la Blonde was madly in love with a young man who was never to be seen, and was supposed to be deaf to all the fair Manon's proofs of devotion. Mystery on mystery. However, this youth, under the diligent attentions of police spies, was soon seen and identified as an escaped convict, the famous hero of the Corsican vendetta, the handsome Theodore Calvi, known as Madeleine.

A man was turned on to entrap Calvi, one of those double-dealing buyers of stolen goods who serve the thieves and the police both at once; he promised to purchase the silver and the watch and chain. At the moment when the dealer of the Cour Saint-Guillaume was counting out the cash to Theodore, dressed as a woman, at half-past six in the evening, the police came in and seized Theodore and the property.

The inquiry was at once begun. On such thin evidence it was impossible to pass a sentence of death. Calvi never swerved, he never contradicted himself. He said that a country woman had sold him these objects at Argenteuil; that after buying them, the excitement over the murder committed at Nanterre had shown him the danger of keeping this plate and watch and chain in his possession, since, in fact, they were proved by the inventory made after the death of the wine merchant, the widow Pigeau's uncle, to be those that were stolen from her. Compelled at last by poverty to sell them, he said he wished to dispose of them by the intervention of a person to whom no suspicion could attach.

And nothing else could be extracted from the convict, who, by his taciturnity and firmness, contrived to insinuate that the wine-merchant at Nanterre had committed the crime, and that the woman of whom he, Theodore, had bought them was the wine-merchant's wife. The unhappy man and his wife were both taken into custody; but, after a week's imprisonment, it was amply proved that neither the husband nor the wife had been out of their house at the time. Also, Calvi failed to recognize in the wife the woman who, as he declared, had sold him the things.

As it was shown that Calvi's mistress, implicated in the case, had spent about a thousand francs since the date of the crime and the day when Calvi tried to pledge the plate and trinkets, the evidence seemed strong enough to commit Calvi and the girl for trial. This murder being the eighteenth which Theodore had committed, he was condemned to death for he seemed certainly to be guilty of this skilfully contrived crime. Though he did not recognize the wine-merchant's wife, both she and her husband recognized him. The inquiry had proved, by the evidence of several witnesses, that Theodore had been living at Nanterre for about a month; he had worked at a mason's, his face whitened with plaster, and his clothes very shabby. At Nanterre the lad was supposed to be about eighteen years old, for the whole month he must have been nursing that brat (nourri ce poupon, i.e. hatching the crime).

The lawyers thought he must have had accomplices. The chimney-pots were measured and compared with the size of Manon la Blonde's body to see if she could have got in that way; but a child of six could not have passed up or down those red-clay pipes, which, in modern buildings, take the place of the vast chimneys of old-fashioned houses. But for this singular and annoying difficulty, Theodore would have been executed within a week. The prison chaplain, it has been seen, could make nothing of him.