Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 24
I was immediately thrown into prison at La Châtre. The public prosecutor for the district of Issoudun took in hand this case of the attempted murder of Mademoiselle de Mauprat, and obtained permission to have a monitory published on the morrow. He went to the village of Sainte-Sévère, and then to the farms in the neighbourhood of the Curat woods, where the event had happened, and took the depositions of more than thirty witnesses. Then, eight days after I had been arrested, the writ of arrest was issued. If my mind had been less distracted, or if some one had interested himself in me, this breach of the law and many others that occurred during the trial might have been adduced as powerful arguments in my favour. They would at least have shown that the proceedings were inspired by some secret hatred. In the whole course of the affair an invisible hand directed everything with pitiless haste and severity.
The first examination had produced but a single indictment against me; this came from Mademoiselle Leblanc. The men who had taken part in the hunt declared that they knew nothing, and had no reason to regard the occurrence as a deliberate attempt at murder. Mademoiselle Leblanc, however, who had an old grudge against me for certain jokes I had ventured to make at her expense, and who, moreover, had been suborned, as I learned afterward, declared that Edmée, on recovering from her first swoon, at a time when she was quite calm and in full possession of her reason, had confided to her, under a pledge of secrecy, that she had been insulted, threatened, dragged from her horse, and finally shot by me. This wicked old maid, putting together the various revelations that Edmée had made in her delirium, had, cleverly enough, composed a connected narrative, and added to it all the embellishments that hatred could suggest. Distorting the incoherent words and vague impressions of her mistress, she declared upon oath that Edmée had seen me point the barrel of my carbine at her, with the words, "As I swore, you shall die by my hand."
Saint-Jean, who was examined on the same day, declared that he knew nothing beyond what Mademoiselle Leblanc had told him that evening, and his deposition was very similar to hers. He was honest enough, but dull and narrow-minded. From love of exactness, he omitted no trifling detail which might be interpreted against me. He asserted that I had always been eccentric, moody, and capricious; that I was subject to pains in the head, during which I lost my senses; that several times previously, when my nerves were disordered, I had spoken of blood and murder to some individual whom I always fancied I could see; and, finally, that my temper was so violent that I was "capable of throwing the first thing that came to hand at any one's head, though as a fact I had never, to his knowledge, committed any excess of this kind." Such are the depositions that frequently decide life and death in criminal cases.
Patience could not be found on the day of this inquiry. The abbé declared that his ideas on the occurrence were so vague that he would undergo all the penalties inflicted on recalcitrant witnesses rather than express his opinion before fuller investigations had been made. He requested the public prosecutor to give him time, promising on his honour that he would not resist the demands of justice, and representing that at the end of a few days, by inquiring into certain things, he would probably arrive at a conviction of some sort; in this event he undertook to speak plainly, either for or against me. This delay was granted.
Marcasse simply said that if I had inflicted the wounds on Mademoiselle de Mauprat, about which he was beginning to feel very doubtful, I had at least inflicted them unintentionally; on this he was prepared to stake his honour and his life.
Such was the result of the first inquiry. It was resumed at various times during the following days, and several false witnesses swore that they had seen me shoot Mademoiselle de Mauprat, after vainly endeavouring to make her yield to my wishes.
One of the most baneful instruments of ancient criminal procedure was what was known as the monitory; this was a notice from the pulpit, given out by the bishop and repeated by all vicars to their parishioners, ordering them to make inquiries about the crime in question, and to reveal all the facts which might come to their knowledge. This was merely a modified form of the inquisitorial principle which reigned more openly in other countries. In the majority of cases, the monitory, which had, as a fact, been instituted in order to encourage informers in the name of religion, was a marvel of ridiculous atrocity; it frequently set forth the crime and all the imaginary circumstances the plaintiffs were eager to prove; it was, in short, the publication of a ready-made case, which gave the first knave that came a chance of earning some money by making a lying deposition in favour of the highest bidder. The inevitable effect of the monitory, when it was drawn up with a bias, was to arouse public hatred against the accused. The devout especially, receiving their opinions ready-made from the clergy, pursued the victim without mercy. This is what happened in my own case; but here the clergy of the province were playing a further secret part which almost decided my fate.
The case was taken to the assizes at the court of Bourges, and proceedings began in a very few days.
You can imagine the gloomy despair with which I was filled. Edmée's condition was growing more and more serious; her mind was completely unhinged. I felt no anxiety as to the result of the trial; I never imagined that it was possible to convict me of a crime I had not committed; but what were honour and life to me, if Edmée were never to regain the power of recognising my innocence? I looked upon her as already dead, and as having cursed me dying! So I was inflexibly resolved to kill myself immediately after receiving my sentence, whatever it might be. Until then I felt that it was my duty to live, and to do what might be necessary for the triumph of truth; but I was plunged in such a state of stupor that I did not even think of ascertaining what was to be done. Had it not been for the cleverness and zeal of my counsel, and the sublime devotion of Marcasse, my listlessness would have left me to the most terrible fate.
Marcasse spent all his time in expeditions on my behalf. In the evening he would come and throw himself on a bundle of straw at the foot of my truckle bed, and, after giving me news of Edmée and the chevalier, whom he went to see every day, he would tell me the result of his proceedings. I used to grasp his hand affectionately; but I was generally so absorbed by the news he had just given me of Edmée, that I never heard anything further.
This prison of La Châtre had formerly been the stronghold of the Elevains of Lombaud, the seigneurs of the province. Nothing was left of it but a formidable square tower, blackened by the centuries, and planted on a rock at the top of a ravine where the Indre forms a narrow, winding valley, rich with the most beautiful vegetation. The weather was magnificent. My room, situated at the top of the tower, received the rays of the rising sun, which cast the long, thin shadows of a triple row of poplars as far as the eye could see. Never did landscape more smiling, fresh, and pastoral offer itself to the eyes of a prisoner. But how could I find pleasure in it? Words of death and contumely came to me in every breeze that blew through the wall-flowers growing in the crannies. Every rustic sound, every tune on the pipe that rose to my room, seemed to contain an insult or to proclaim profound contempt for my sorrow. There was nothing, even to the bleating of the flocks, which did not appear to me an expression of neglect or indifference.
For some time Marcasse had had one fixed idea, namely, that Edmée had been shot by John Mauprat. It was possible; but as there was no evidence to support the conjecture, I at once ordered him not to make known his suspicions. It was not for me to clear myself at the expense of others. Although John Mauprat was capable of anything, it was possible that he had never thought of committing this crime; and as I had not heard him spoken of for more than six weeks, it seemed to me that it would have been cowardly to accuse him. I clung to the belief that one of the men in the battue had fired at Edmée by mistake, and that a feeling of fear and shame prevented him from confessing his misadventure. Marcasse had the courage to go and see all those who had taken part in the hunt, and, with such eloquence as Heaven had granted him, implored them not to fear the penalty for unintentional murder, and not to allow an innocent man to be accused in their stead. All these efforts were fruitless; from none of the huntsmen did my poor friend obtain a reply which left him any nearer a solution of the mystery that surrounded us.
On being transferred to Bourges, I was thrown into the castle which had belonged to the old dukes of Berry; this was henceforth to be my prison. It was a great grief to me to be separated from my faithful sergeant. He would have been allowed to follow me, but he had a presentiment that he would soon be arrested at the suggestion of my enemies (for he persisted in believing that I was the victim of a plot), and thus be unable to serve me any more. He wished, therefore, to lose no time, and to continue his investigations as long as they "should not have seized his person."
Two days after my removal to Bourges, Marcasse produced a document which had been drawn up at his instance by two notaries of La Châtre. It contained the depositions of ten witnesses to the effect that for some days before the attempted assassination, a mendicant friar had been prowling about Varenne; that he had appeared in different places very close together; and, notably, that he had slept at Notre-Dame de Poligny the night before the event. Marcasse maintained that this monk was John Mauprat. Two women declared that they had thought they recognised him either as John or Walter Mauprat, who closely resembled him. But Walter had been found drowned the day after the capture of the keep; and the whole town of La Châtre, on the day when Edmée was shot, had seen the Trappist engaged with the Carmelite prior from morning till night in conducting the procession and services for the pilgrimage of Vaudevant. These depositions, therefore, so far from being favourable to me, produced a very bad effect, and threw odium on my defence. The Trappist conclusively proved his alibi, and the prior of the Carmelites helped him to spread a report that I was a worthless villain. This was a time of triumph for John Mauprat; he proclaimed aloud that he had come to deliver himself up to his natural judges to suffer punishment for his crimes in the past; but no one could think of prosecuting such a holy man. The fanaticism that he inspired in our eminently devout province was such that no magistrate would have dared to brave public opinion by proceeding against him. In his own depositions, Marcasse gave an account of the mysterious and inexplicable appearance of the Trappist at Roche-Mauprat, the steps he had taken to obtain an interview with M. Hubert and his daughter, his insolence in entering and terrifying them in their drawing-room, and the efforts the Carmelite prior had made to obtain considerable sums of money from me on behalf of this individual. All these depositions were treated as fairy tales, for Marcasse admitted that he had not seen the Trappist in any of the places mentioned, and neither the chevalier nor his daughter was able to give evidence. It is true that my answers to the various questions put to me confirmed Marcasse's statements; but as I declared in all sincerity that for some two months the Trappist had given me no cause for uneasiness or displeasure, and as I refused to attribute the murder to him, it seemed for some days as if he would be forever reinstated in public opinion. My lack of animosity against him did not, however, diminish that which my judges showed against me. They made use of the arbitrary powers which magistrates had in bygone days, especially in remote parts of the provinces, and they paralyzed all my lawyer's efforts by a fierce haste. Several legal personages, whose names I will not mention, indulged, even publicly, in a strain of invective against me which ought to have excluded them from any court dealing with questions of human dignity and morality. They intrigued to induce me to confess, and almost went so far as to promise me a favourable verdict if I at least acknowledged that I had wounded Mademoiselle de Mauprat accidentally. The scorn with which I met these overtures alienated them altogether. A stranger to all intrigue, at a time when justice and truth could not triumph except by intrigue, I was a victim of two redoubtable enemies, the Church and the Law; the former I had offended in the person of the Carmelite prior; and the latter hated me because, of the suitors whom Edmée had repulsed, the most spiteful was a man closely related to the chief magistrate.
Nevertheless, a few honest men to whom I was almost unknown, took an interest in my case on account of the efforts of others to make my name odious. One of them, a Monsieur E———, who was not without influence, for he was the brother of the sheriff of the province and acquainted with all the deputies, rendered me a service by the excellent suggestions he made for throwing light on this complicated affair.
Patience, convinced as he was of my guilt, might have served my enemies without wishing to do so; but he would not. He had resumed his roaming life in the woods, and, though he did not hide, could never be found. Marcasse was very uneasy about his intentions and could not understand his conduct at all. The police were furious to find that an old man was making a fool of them, and that without going beyond a radius of a few leagues. I fancy that the old fellow, with his habits and constitution, could have lived for years in Varenne without falling into their hands, and, moreover, without feeling that longing to surrender which a sense of ennui and the horror of solitude so frequently arouse, even in great criminals.