Vautrin's Last Avatar/Section 7
All this business, and the name of Calvi, must have escaped the notice of Jacques Collin, who, at the time, was absorbed in his single-handed struggle with Contenson, Corentin, and Peyrade. It had indeed been a point with Trompe-la-Mort to forget as far as possible his chums and all that had to do with the law courts; he dreaded a meeting which should bring him face to face with a pal who might demand an account of his boss which Collin could not possibly render.
The governor of the prison went forthwith to the public prosecutor's court, where he found the Attorney-General in conversation with Monsieur de Granville, who had spent the whole night at the Hotel de Serizy, was, in consequence of this important case, obliged to give a few hours to his duties, though overwhelmed with fatigue and grief; for the physicians could not yet promise that the Countess would recover her sanity.
After speaking a few words to the governor, Monsieur de Granville took the warrant from the attorney and placed it in Gault's hands.
"Let the matter proceed," said he, "unless some extraordinary circumstances should arise. Of this you must judge. I trust to your judgment. The scaffold need not be erected till half-past ten, so you still have an hour. On such an occasion hours are centuries, and many things may happen in a century. Do not allow him to think he is reprieved; prepare the man for execution if necessary; and if nothing comes of that, give Sanson the warrant at half-past nine. Let him wait!"
As the governor of the prison left the public prosecutor's room, under the archway of the passage into the hall he met Monsieur Camusot, who was going there. He exchanged a few hurried words with the examining judge; and after telling him what had been done at the Conciergerie with regard to Jacques Collin, he went on to witness the meeting of Trompe-la-Mort and Madeleine; and he did not allow the so-called priest to see the condemned criminal till Bibi-Lupin, admirably disguised as a gendarme, had taken the place of the prisoner left in charge of the young Corsican.
No words can describe the amazement of the three convicts when a warder came to fetch Jacques Collin and led him to the condemned cell! With one consent they rushed up to the chair on which Jacques Collin was sitting.
"To-day, isn't it, monsieur?" asked Fil-de-Soie of the warder.
"Yes, Jack Ketch is waiting," said the man with perfect indifference.
Charlot is the name by which the executioner is known to the populace and the prison world in Paris. The nickname dates from the Revolution of 1789.
The words produced a great sensation. The prisoners looked at each other.
"It is all over with him," the warder went on; "the warrant has been delivered to Monsieur Gault, and the sentence has just been read to him."
"And so the fair Madeleine has received the last sacraments?" said la Pouraille, and he swallowed a deep mouthful of air.
"Poor little Theodore!" cried le Biffon; "he is a pretty chap too. What a pity to drop your nut" (eternuer dans le son) "so young."
The warder went towards the gate, thinking that Jacques Collin was at his heels. But the Spaniard walked very slowly, and when he was getting near to Julien he tottered and signed to la Pouraille to give him his arm.
"He is a murderer," said Napolitas to the priest, pointing to la Pouraille, and offering his own arm.
"No, to me he is an unhappy wretch!" replied Jacques Collin, with the presence of mind and the unction of the Archbishop of Cambrai. And he drew away from Napolitas, of whom he had been very suspicious from the first. Then he said to his pals in an undertone:
"He is on the bottom step of the Abbaye de Monte-a-Regret, but I am the Prior! I will show you how well I know how to come round the beaks. I mean to snatch this boy's nut from their jaws."
"For the sake of his breeches!" said Fil-de-Soie with a smile.
"I mean to win his soul to heaven!" replied Jacques Collin fervently, seeing some other prisoners about him. And he joined the warder at the gate.
"He got in to save Madeleine," said Fil-de-Soie. "We guessed rightly. What a boss he is!"
"But how can he? Jack Ketch's men are waiting. He will not even see the kid," objected le Biffon.
"The devil is on his side!" cried la Pouraille. "He claim our blunt! Never! He is too fond of his old chums! We are too useful to him! They wanted to make us blow the gaff, but we are not such flats! If he saves his Madeleine, I will tell him all my secrets."
The effect of this speech was to increase the devotion of the three convicts to their boss; for at this moment he was all their hope.
Jacques Collin, in spite of Madeleine's peril, did not forget to play his part. Though he knew the Conciergerie as well as he knew the hulks in the three ports, he blundered so naturally that the warder had to tell him, "This way, that way," till they reached the office. There, at a glance, Jacques Collin recognized a tall, stout man leaning on the stove, with a long, red face not without distinction: it was Sanson.
"Monsieur is the chaplain?" said he, going towards him with simple cordiality.
The mistake was so shocking that it froze the bystanders.
"No, monsieur," said Sanson; "I have other functions."
Sanson, the father of the last executioner of that name—for he has recently been dismissed—was the son of the man who beheaded Louis XVI. After four centuries of hereditary office, this descendant of so many executioners had tried to repudiate the traditional burden. The Sansons were for two hundred years executioners at Rouen before being promoted to the first rank in the kingdom, and had carried out the decrees of justice from father to son since the thirteenth century. Few families can boast of an office or of nobility handed down in a direct line during six centuries.
This young man had been captain in a cavalry regiment, and was looking forward to a brilliant military career, when his father insisted on his help in decapitating the king. Then he made his son his deputy when, in 1793, two guillotines were in constant work—one at the Barriere du Trone, and the other in the Place de Greve. This terrible functionary, now a man of about sixty, was remarkable for his dignified air, his gentle and deliberate manners, and his entire contempt for Bibi-Lupin and his acolytes who fed the machine. The only detail which betrayed the blood of the mediaeval executioner was the formidable breadth and thickness of his hands. Well informed too, caring greatly for his position as a citizen and an elector, and an enthusiastic florist, this tall, brawny man with his low voice, his calm reserve, his few words, and a high bald forehead, was like an English nobleman rather than an executioner. And a Spanish priest would certainly have fallen into the mistake which Jacques Collin had intentionally made.
"He is no convict!" said the head warder to the governor.
"I begin to think so too," replied Monsieur Gault, with a nod to that official.
Jacques Collin was led to the cellar-like room where Theodore Calvi, in a straitwaistcoat, was sitting on the edge of the wretched camp bed. Trompe-la-Mort, under a transient gleam of light from the passage, at once recognized Bibi-Lupin in the gendarme who stood leaning on his sword.
"Io sono Gaba-Morto. Parla nostro Italiano," said Jacques Collin very rapidly. "Vengo ti salvar."
"I am Trompe-la-Mort. Talk our Italian. I have come to save you."
All the two chums wanted to say had, of course, to be incomprehensible to the pretended gendarme; and as Bibi-Lupin was left in charge of the prisoner, he could not leave his post. The man's fury was quite indescribable.
Theodore Calvi, a young man with a pale olive complexion, light hair, and hollow, dull, blue eyes, well built, hiding prodigious strength under the lymphatic appearance that is not uncommon in Southerners, would have had a charming face but for the strongly-arched eyebrows and low forehead that gave him a sinister expression, scarlet lips of savage cruelty, and a twitching of the muscles peculiar to Corsicans, denoting that excessive irritability which makes them so prompt to kill in any sudden squabble.
Theodore, startled at the sound of that voice, raised his head, and at first thought himself the victim of a delusion; but as the experience of two months had accustomed him to the darkness of this stone box, he looked at the sham priest, and sighed deeply. He did not recognize Jacques Collin, whose face, scarred by the application of sulphuric acid, was not that of his old boss.
"It is really your Jacques; I am your confessor, and have come to get you off. Do not be such a ninny as to know me; and speak as if you were making a confession." He spoke with the utmost rapidity. "This young fellow is very much depressed; he is afraid to die, he will confess everything," said Jacques Collin, addressing the gendarme.
Bibi-Lupin dared not say a word for fear of being recognized.
"Say something to show me that you are he; you have nothing but his voice," said Theodore.
"You see, poor boy, he assures me that he is innocent," said Jacques Collin to Bibi-Lupin, who dared not speak for fear of being recognized.
"Sempre mi," said Jacques, returning close to Theodore, and speaking the word in his ear.
"Sempre ti," replied Theodore, giving the countersign. "Yes, you are the boss——"
"Did you do the trick?"
"Tell me the whole story, that I may see what can be done to save you; make haste, Jack Ketch is waiting."
The Corsican at once knelt down and pretended to be about to confess.
Bibi-Lupin did not know what to do, for the conversation was so rapid that it hardly took as much time as it does to read it. Theodore hastily told all the details of the crime, of which Jacques Collin knew nothing.
"The jury gave their verdict without proof," he said finally.
"Child! you want to argue when they are waiting to cut off your hair——"
"But I might have been sent to spout the wedge.—And that is the way they judge you!—and in Paris too!"
"But how did you do the job?" asked Trompe-la-Mort.
"Ah! there you are.—Since I saw you I made acquaintance with a girl, a Corsican, I met when I came to Paris."
"Men who are such fools as to love a woman," cried Jacques Collin, "always come to grief that way. They are tigers on the loose, tigers who blab and look at themselves in the glass.—You were a gaby."
"Well, what good did she do you—that curse of a moll?"
"That duck of a girl—no taller than a bundle of firewood, as slippery as an eel, and as nimble as a monkey—got in at the top of the oven, and opened the front door. The dogs were well crammed with balls, and as dead as herrings. I settled the two women. Then when I got the swag, Ginetta locked the door and got out again by the oven."
"Such a clever dodge deserves life," said Jacques Collin, admiring the execution of the crime as a sculptor admires the modeling of a figure.
"And I was fool enough to waste all that cleverness for a thousand crowns!"
"No, for a woman," replied Jacques Collin. "I tell you, they deprive us of all our wits," and Jacques Collin eyed Theodore with a flashing glance of contempt.
"But you were not there!" said the Corsican; "I was all alone——"
"And do you love the slut?" asked Jacques Collin, feeling that the reproach was a just one.
"Oh! I want to live, but it is for you now rather than for her."
"Be quite easy, I am not called Trompe-la-Mort for nothing. I undertake the case."
"What! life?" cried the lad, lifting his swaddled hands towards the damp vault of the cell.
"My little Madeleine, prepare to be lagged for life (penal servitude)," replied Jacques Collin. "You can expect no less; they won't crown you with roses like a fatted ox. When they first set us down for Rochefort, it was because they wanted to be rid of us! But if I can get you ticketed for Toulon, you can get out and come back to Pantin (Paris), where I will find you a tidy way of living."
A sigh such as had rarely been heard under that inexorable roof struck the stones, which sent back the sound that has no fellow in music, to the ear of the astounded Bibi-Lupin.
"It is the effect of the absolution I promised him in return for his revelations," said Jacques Collin to the gendarme. "These Corsicans, monsieur, are full of faith! But he is as innocent as the Immaculate Babe, and I mean to try to save him."
"God bless you, Monsieur l'Abbe!" said Theodore in French.