Compromises/Consecrated to Crime

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CONSECRATED TO CRIME

The breathless fellow at the altar-foot,
Fresh from his murder, safe and sitting there,
With the little children round him in a row
Of admiration.

Fra Lippo Lippi.

Not long ago I saw these lines quoted to show the blessedness of sanctuary; quoted with a serious sentimentality which left no room for their more startling significance. The writer drew a parallel between the ruffian sheltered by his church and the soldier sheltered by his flag, forgiven much wrong-doing for the sake of the standard under which he has served and suffered. But Mr. Browning's murderer has not served the church. He is unforgiven, and, let us hope, eventually hanged. In the interval, however, he poses as a hero to the children, and as an object of lively interest to the pious and Mass-going Florentines. A lean monk praying on the altar steps would have awakened no sentiment in their hearts; yet even the frequency, the cheapness of crime failed to rob it of its lustre. It was not without reason that Plutarch preferred to write of wicked men. He had the pardonable desire of an author to be read.

In these less vivid days we are seldom brought into such picturesque contact with assassins. The majesty of the law is strenuously exerted to shield them from open adulation. We have grown sensitive, too, and prone to consider our own safety, which we call the welfare of the public. Some of us believe that criminals are madmen, or sick men, who should be doctored rather than punished. On the whole, our emotions are too complex for the straightforward enjoyment with which our robust ancestors contemplated—and often committed—deeds of violence. Murder is to us no longer as

…a dish of tea,
And treason, bread and butter.

We have ceased to stomach such sharp condiments.

Yet something of the old glamour, the glamour with which the Serpent beguiled Eve, still hangs about historic sins, making them—as Plutarch knew—more attractive than historic virtues. Places consecrated to the memory of crime have so keen an interest that travellers search for them painstakingly, and are often both grieved and indignant because some blood-soaked hovel has not been carefully preserved by the ungrateful community which harboured—and hanged—the wretch who lived in it. I met in Edinburgh a disappointed tourist,—a woman and an American,—who had spent a long day searching vainly for the house in which Burke and Hare committed their ghastly murders, and for the still more hideous habitation of Major Weir and his sister. She had wandered for hours through the most offensive slums that Great Britain has to show; she had seen and heard and smelt everything that was disagreeable; she had made endless inquiries, and had been regarded as a troublesome lunatic; and all that she might look upon the dilapidated walls, behind which had been committed evils too vile for telling. And this in Edinburgh, the city of great and sombre tragedies, where Mary Stuart held her court, and Montrose rode to the scaffold. With so many dark pages in her chronicles, one has scant need to burrow for ignoble guilt.

There are deeds, however, that have so coloured history, stained it so redly and so imperishably, that their seal is set upon the abodes that witnessed them, and all other associations grow dim and trivial by comparison. The murder of a Douglas or of a Guise by his sovereign is the apotheosis of crime, the zenith of horror. As long as the stones of Stirling or of Blois shall hold together, that horror shall be their dower. The walls shriek their tale. They make a splendid and harmonious background for the tragedy that gives them life. They are fitting guardians of their fame. It can never be sufficiently regretted that the murder of Darnley had so mean a setting, and that the methods employed by the murderers have left us little even of that meanness. Some bleak fortress in the north should have sheltered a crime so long impending, and so grimly wrought; but perhaps the paltriness of the victim merited no better mise en scène. The Douglas and the Guise were made of sterner stuff, and the world—the tourist world—pays in its vapouring fashion a tribute to their strength. It buys pathetically incongruous souvenirs of the "Douglas room;" and it traces every step by which the great Duke, the head and the heart of the League, went scornfully to his death.

Blois has associations that are not murderous. It saw the solemn consecration of the standard of Joan of Arc, and the splendid feasts which celebrated the auspicious betrothal of Henry of Navarre to his Valois bride. The statue of Louis the Twelfth, "Father of his people," sits stiffly astride of its caparisoned charger above the entrance gate. But it is not upon Joan, nor upon Navarre, nor upon good King Louis that the traveller wastes a thought. The ghosts that dominate the château are those of Catherine de Medici, of her son, wanton in wickedness, and of the murdered Guise. Castle guides are notoriously short of speech, sparing of time, models of bored indifference. But the guardian of Blois waxes eloquent over the tale he has to tell, and, with the dramatic instinct of his race, strives to put its details vividly before our eyes. He assigns to each assassin his post, shows where the wretched young king concealed himself until the deed was done, and points out the exact spot in the Cabinet Vieux where the first blow was struck. "Behold the perfect tableau!" he winds up enthusiastically, and we are forced to admit that, as a tableau, it lacks no element of success. Mr. Henry James's somewhat cynical appreciation of this "perfect episode"—perfect, from the dramatist's point of view—recurs inevitably to our minds:—

"The picture is full of light and darkness, full of movement, full altogether of abominations. Mixed up with them all is the great theological motive, so that the drama wants little to make it complete. The insolent prosperity of the victim; the weakness, the vices, the terrors of the author of the deed; the admirable execution of the plot; the accumulation of horror in what followed,—render it, as a crime, one of the classic things."

Classic surely were the repeated warnings, so determinedly ignored. Cæsar was not more plainly cautioned of his danger than was the Duke of Guise. Cæsar was not more resolved to live his life fearlessly, or to die. Cæsar was not harder to kill. It takes many a dagger stroke to release a strong spirit from its clay.

There were dismal prophecies months ahead, advance couriers of the slowly maturing plot. "Before the year dies, you shall die," was the message sent to the Duke when the States-General were summoned to Blois. His mother, ceaselessly apprehensive, his mistress, Charlotte de Sauves, besought him to leave the château. Nine ominous notes, crumpled bits of paper, each written at the peril of a life, admonished him of his fate. The ninth was thrust into his hand as he made his way for the last time to the council chamber. "Le ciel sombre et triste" frowned forebodingly upon him as he crossed the terrace, and La Salle and D'Aubercourt strove even then to turn him back. At the foot of the beautiful spiral staircase sat the jester, Chicot, singing softly under his breath a final word of warning, "Hé, j'ay Guise." He dared no more, and he dared that much in vain. The Duke passed him disdainfully, and—smitten by the gods with madness—went lightly up the steps to meet his doom.

This is the story that Blois has to tell, and she tells it with terrible distinctness. She is so steeped in blood, so shadowed by the memory of her crime, that there is scant need for her guides to play their official parts, nor for her museum walls to be hung round with feeble representations of the tragedy. But it is strange, after all, that the beautiful home of Francis the First should not speak to us more audibly of him. He built its right wing, "the most joyous utterance of the French Renaissance." He stamped his own exuberant gayety upon every detail. His salamander curls its carven tail over stairs and doors and window sills. He is surely a figure striking enough, and familiar enough to enchain attention. Why do we not think about him, and about those ladies of "mutable connections" whose names echo buoyantly from his little page of history? Why do our minds turn obstinately to the Cabinet Vieux, or to those still more mirthless rooms above where Catherine de Medici lived and died. "Il y a de méchantes qualités qui font de grandes talents," but these qualities were noticeably lacking in the Queen Mother. It is not the good she tried and failed to do, but the evil that she wrought which gives her a claim to our magnetized interest and regard.

To the tolerant observer it seems a work of supererogation, a gilding of refined gold, to add to the sins of really accomplished sinners like Catherine and Louis the Eleventh. These sombre souls have left scant space for our riotous imaginations to fill in. Their known deeds are terrible enough to make us quail. It might be more profitable—as it is certainly more irksome—to search for their redeeming traits: the tact, the mental vigour of the queen, and the efforts she made to bind together the distracted factions of France; the courage, sagacity, and unflinching resolution with which Louis strengthened his kingdom, and protected those whose mean estate made them wholly uninteresting to nobler monarchs. These things are worth consideration, but far be it from us to consider them. High lights and heavy shadows please us best; and by this time the shadows have been so well inked that their blackness is impenetrable. It can never be said of Catherine de Medici, as it is said of Mary Stuart, that she has been injured by the zeal of her friends, and helped by the falsehoods of her enemies. Catherine has few friends, and none whose enthusiasm is burdensome to bear. She has furnished easily-used material for writers of romance, who commonly represent her as depopulating France with poisoned gloves and perfumery; and she has served as a target—too big to be missed—for tyros in historical invective. We have come to regard her in a large, loose, picturesque way as an embodiment of evil,—very much, perhaps, as Mr. John Addington Symonds regards Clytemnestra,—fed and nourished by her sins, waxing fat upon iniquity, and destitute alike of conscience and of shame. And this is the reason that women who have spent their lives in the practice of laborious virtues stand fluttering with delight in that dark Medicean bedchamber. "Blois is the most interesting of all the châteaux," said one of them to me;—she looked as if she could not even tell a lie;—"you see the very bed in which Catherine de Medici died." And I thought of the Florentine children at the altar steps.

Mr. Andrew Lang is of the opinion that if an historical event could be discredited, like a ghost story, by discrepancies in the evidence, we might maintain that Darnley was never murdered at all. We might also be led to doubt the existence of Cardinal Balue's cage, that ingenious torture-chamber which has added so largely and so deservedly to the reputation of Louis the Eleventh. There is a drawing of the cage, or rather of a cage, still to be seen, and there is the bill for its making;—what a prop to history are well-kept household accounts!—while, on the other hand, its ubiquitous nature staggers our trusting faith. Loches claims it as one of her traditions, and so does Plessis-les-Tours. Loches is so rich in horrors that she can afford to dispense with a few; but the cage, if it ever existed at all, was undoubtedly one of the permanent decorations of her tower. The room in which it hung is cheerful and commodious when compared to the black prison of Saint Valier, or to the still deeper dungeon of the Bishops of Puy and Autun. The cardinal could at least see and be seen, if that were any amelioration of his lot, and we are still shown the turret stairs down which the king stepped warily when he came to visit his prisoner.

But Plessis-les-Tours covets the distinction of the cage. She is not without some dismal memories of her own, though she looks like a dismantled factory, and she strives with pardonable ambition to make them dismaler. The energetic and intelligent woman who conducts visitors around her mouldering walls has, in a splendid spirit of assurance, selected for this purpose a small dilapidated cellar, open to the sky, and a small dilapidated flight of steps, not more than seven in number. Beneath these steps—where a terrier might perhaps curl himself in comfort—she assured us with an unflinching front the cardinal's cage was tucked; and reading the doubt in our veiled eyes, she stooped and pointed out a rusty bit of iron riveted in the wall. "See," she said triumphantly, "there still remains one of the fastenings of the cage." The argument was irresistible:

The fact is that it has been found necessary to exert a great deal of ingenuity in order to meet the popular demand for cold-blooded cruelty where Louis the Eleventh is concerned. He is an historic bugbear, a hobgoblin, at whose grim ghost we grown-up children like to shudder apprehensively. Scott, with a tolerance as wide as Shakespeare's own, has dared to give a finer colour to the picture, has dared to engage our sympathy for this implacable old man who knew how to "hate and wait," how to lie in ambush, and how to drive relentlessly to his goal. But even Scott has been unable to subdue our cherished antipathy, or to modify the deep prejudices instilled early into our minds. Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson, who of all writers has least patience with schoolbook verdicts, hits hard at our narrow fidelity to censorship. "It is probably more instructive," he says, "to entertain a sneaking kindness for any unpopular person than to give way to perfect raptures of moral indignation against his abstract vices."

Now a more unpopular, a more comprehensively unlovable person than Louis it would be hard to find. He did much for France, yet France drew a deep breath of relief when he died.

Il n'est pas sire de son pays,
Quy de son peple n'est pas amez.

Those who fail to entertain the "sneaking kindness" recommended by Mr. Stevenson may shelter themselves behind this ancient couplet. "Of him there is an end. God pardon him his sins," is Froissart's fashion of summing up every man's career. It will serve as well for Louis as for another.

But to gratify at once our prejudices and our emotions, a generous mass of legend has been added to the chronicles of Loches, Blois, Amboise, and other castles that are consecrated to the crimes of kings. History, though flexible and complaisant up to a certain point, has her limits of accommodation. She has also her cold white lights, and her disconcerting truths, so annoying, and so invariably ill-timed in their revelations. We can never be quite sure that History, however obliging she seems, will not suddenly desert our rightful cause, and go over to our opponents. We have but to remember what trouble she has given, and in what an invidious, not to say churlish spirit she has contradicted the most masterly historians. It is best to ignore her altogether, and to tell our stories without any reference to her signature.

So thought the sensible young woman who led us captive through the collegiate church at Loches, and who insisted upon our descending into the crypt, at one time connected with the fortress by a subterranean gallery. Its dim walls are decorated here and there with mural paintings, rude and half effaced. She pointed out the shadowy outline of a saint in cope and mitre, his stiff forefinger raised in benediction. "That," she said with startling composure, "is the bishop who was the confessor of Louis the Eleventh. The king had him buried alive in this chapel, so that he might not betray the secrets of his confession."

"And did the king have him painted on the wall afterwards, to commemorate the circumstance?" asked the scoffer of the party, at whom others gazed reproachfully, while I wondered how the story of Saint John of Nepomuk had travelled so far afield, and why it had been so absurdly reset to add another shade to Louis's memory. It hardly seemed worth while, in view of the legitimate darkness of the horizon. It even seemed a pity. It forced a laugh, and laughter is inharmonious beneath the walls of Loches. But if the king, whose piety was of a vigorous and active order, had the habit of walling up his confessors, there must have been some rational hesitation on the part of even the most devoted clerics when his Majesty sought to be shriven; and the stress of royal conscientiousness—combined with royal apprehension—must have shortened the somewhat hazardous road to church preferment. The fact that Louis never wasted his cruelties, that they were one and all the fruits of deep and secret hostility, might have saved him from being the hero of such fantastic myths.

It was more amusing to visit the picturesque old house in Tours, known as le Maison de Tristan l'Ermite. How it came to be associated with that melancholy and industrious hangman, who had been dead half a century when its first stone was laid, has never been made clear; unless, indeed, the familiar device of the festooned cord, the emblem of Anne de Bretagne, which is carved over door and windows, may be held responsible for the suggestion. Once christened, however, it has become a centre of finely imaginative romance,—romance of a high order, which for finish of detail may be recommended to the careless purveyors of historic fiction. Passing through the heavy doorway into a beautiful sombre courtyard, we had hardly time to admire its proportions, and the curious little stone beasts which wanton wickedly in dark corners, before a gaunt woman, who is the guardian spirit of the place, summoned us to ascend an interminable flight of steps, much worn and dimly lit. They had an ominous look, and the woman's air of mystery, subtly blent with resolution, was in admirable accord with her surroundings. From time to time she paused to point out a shallow niche which had formerly held a lamp, or a broken place in the wall's rough masonry. "L'oubliette" she whispered grimly, pointing to the hole which revealed—and gainsaid—nothing. There was a small walled-up door, equally reserved, which she said was, or had been, the opening of a secret passage connecting the house with the château of Plessis-les-Tours, more than two miles away. The full significance of this remark failed to dawn upon us until we had climbed up, up, up, and emerged at last upon a narrow balcony overlooking the sad courtyard far below, and protected by a heavy iron railing. It was a disagreeable place, not without its suggestions of horror; yet were we in no wise prepared for the recital that followed. From this railing, said our guide, Tristan l'Ermite was in the habit of hanging the victims whom Louis the Eleventh, "that great and prompt chastener," confided to his mercy. I could not help murmuring at the cruelty which compelled the unfortunates to mount nearly two hundred steps to be hanged, when the courtyard beneath offered every reasonable accommodation; but, even as I spoke, I recognized the poverty of imagination which could prompt such a stupid speech. Perhaps some direful memory of the Balcon des Conjures at Amboise may be held responsible for the web of fiction which has been woven about this grim eyrie of Tours; and if the picture lacks the magnificent setting of the Amboise tragedy, it is by no means destitute of power. There is a certain grandeur in being hanged from such a dizzy height.

Our guide next pointed out the opening of the mythical oubliette. If the condemned toiled wearily up to their beetling scaffold, the executioners were spared at least the labour of carrying their bodies down again. After they had been picturesquely hanged under the king's own eye,—for we were asked to believe that Louis walked two miles along a subterranean passage to inspect the ordinary, and by no means infrequent, processes of justice,—the corpses were tumbled into the oubliette, and made their own headlong way to the Loire.

One more detail was added to this interesting and deeply coloured fable. The right-hand wall of the courtyard was studded, on a level with the balcony, with huge rusty iron nails. There were rows upon rows of these unlovely and apparently useless objects which tradition had not failed to turn to good account. For every man hanged on that spot by the indefatigable Tristan, a nail was, it seems, driven into the wall, which thus became a sort of baker's tally or tavern slate. We counted forty-four nails. The woman nodded her head with serious satisfaction. Frequent repetitions of her story had brought her almost to the point of believing it. She had ministered so long to the tastes of tourists—who like to think that Louis hanged his subjects as liberally as Catherine de Medici poisoned hers—that she had gradually moulded her narrative into symmetry, making use of every available feature to give it consistency and grace. The fine old house—which may have harboured tragedies of its own as sombre as any wrought by Tristan's hand—lent itself with true architectural sympathy to the illusion. Some habitations can do this thing, can look to perfection the parts assigned them by history or by tradition. Who that has ever seen the "Jew's House" at Lincoln can forget the peculiar horror that broods over the dark, ill-omened doorway? The place is peopled by ghosts. Beneath its heavy lintel pass little trembling feet. From out the shadows comes a strangled cry. It tells its tale better than Chaucer or the balladists; with less pity and more fear, less detail and more suggestiveness. We shudder as we peer into its gloom, yet we linger, magnetized by the subtlety of association. It may be innocent,—poor, huddled mass of stone,—but we hope not. We are like the children at the altar-foot, spellbound by the vision of a crime.