Mauprat (Heinemann)/Chapter 25
The day of the public trial came. I went to face it quite calmly; but the sight of the crowd filled me with a profound melancholy. No support, no sympathy for me there! It seemed to me that on such an occasion I might at least have looked for that show of respect to which the unfortunate and friendless are entitled. Yet, on all the faces around I saw nothing but a brutal and insolent curiosity. Girls of the lower classes talked loudly of my good looks and my youth. A large number of women belonging to the nobility or moneyed classes displayed their brilliant dresses in the galleries, as if they had come to some fête. A great many monks showed their shaven crowns in the middle of the populace, which they were inciting against me; from their crowded ranks I could frequently catch the words "brigand," "ungodly," and "wild beast." The men of fashion in the district were lolling on the seats of honour, and discussing my passion in the language of the gutter. I saw and heard everything with that tranquility which springs from a profound disgust of life; even as a traveller who has come to the end of his journey, may look with indifference and weariness on the eager bustle of those who are setting off for a more distant goal.
The trial began with that emphatic solemnity which at all times has been associated with the exercise of judicial power. My examination was short, in spite of the innumerable questions that were asked me about my whole life. My answers singularly disappointed the expectations of public curiosity, and shortened the trial considerably. I confined myself to three principal replies, the substance of which I never changed. Firstly, to all questions concerning my childhood and education, I replied that I had not come into the defendant's dock to accuse others. Secondly, to those bearing on Edmée, the nature of my feeling for her, and my relations with her, I replied that Mademoiselle de Mauprat's worth and reputation could not permit even the simplest question as to the nature of her relations with any man whatever; and that, as to my feelings for her, I was accountable for them to no one. Thirdly, to those which were designed to make me confess my pretended crime, I replied that I was not even the unwilling author of the accident. In brief answers I gave some details of the events immediately preceding it; but, feeling that I owed it to Edmée as much as to myself to be silent about the tumultuous impulses that had stirred me, I explained the scene which had resulted in my quitting her, as being due to a fall from my horse; and that I had been found some distance from her body was, I said, because I had deemed it advisable to run after my horse, so that I might again escort her. Unfortunately all this was not very clear, and, naturally, could not be. My horse had gone off in the direction opposite to that which I said; and the bewildered state in which I had been found before I knew of the accident, was not sufficiently explained by a fall from my horse. They questioned me especially about the gallop I had had with my cousin through the wood, instead of following the hunt as we had intended; they would not believe that we had gone astray, guided altogether by chance. It was impossible, they said, to look upon chance as a reasonable being, armed with a gun, waiting for Edmée at Gazeau Tower at an appointed time, in order to shoot her the moment I turned my back for five minutes. They pretended that I must have taken her to this out-of-the-way spot either by craft or force to outrage her; and that I had tried to kill her either from rage at not succeeding, or from fear of being discovered and punished for my crime.
Then all the witnesses for and against me were heard. It is true that among the former Marcasse was the only one who could really be considered as a witness for the defence. The rest merely affirmed that a "monk bearing a resemblance to the Mauprats" had been roaming about Varenne at the period in question, and that he had even appeared to hide himself on the evening of the event. Since then he had not been seen. These depositions, which I had not solicited, and which I declared had not been taken at my request, caused me considerable astonishment; for among the witnesses who made them I saw some of the most honest folk in the country. However, they had no weight except in the eyes of Monsieur E———, the magistrate, who was really interested in discovering the truth. He interposed, and asked me how it was that M. Jean de Mauprat had not been summoned to confront these witnesses, seeing that he had taken the trouble to put in his affidavit to prove an alibi. This objection was received with a murmur of indignation. There were not a few people, however, who by no means looked upon John Mauprat as a saint; but they took no interest in myself, and had merely come to the trial as to a play.
The enthusiasm of the bigots reached a climax when the Trappist suddenly stood up in the crowd. Throwing back his cowl in a theatrical manner, he boldly approached the bar, declaring that he was a miserable sinner worthy of all scorn, but that on this occasion, when it was the duty of every one to strive for truth, he considered it incumbent on him to set an example of simple candour by voluntarily offering himself for any examination which might shed light on the judges' minds. These words were greeted with applause. The Trappist was admitted to the witness-box, and confronted with the witnesses, who all declared, without any hesitation, that the monk they had seen wore the same habit as this man, and that there was a family likeness, a sort of distant resemblance between the two; but that it was not the same person—on this point they had not the least doubt.
The result of this incident was a fresh triumph for the Trappist. No one seemed to notice that, as the witnesses had displayed so much candour, it was difficult to believe that they had not really seen another Trappist. At this moment I remembered that, at the time of the abbé's first interview with John Mauprat at the spring at Fougeres, the latter had let fall a few words about a friar of the same order who was travelling with him, and had passed the night at the Goulets farm. I thought it advisable to mention this fact to my counsel. He discussed it in a low voice with the abbé, who was sitting among the witnesses. The latter remembered the circumstance quite clearly, but was unable to add any further details.
When it came to the abbé's turn to give evidence he looked at me with an expression of agony; his eyes filled with tears, and he answered the formal questions with difficulty, and in an almost inaudible voice. He made a great effort to master himself, and finally he gave his evidence in these words:
"I was driving in the woods when M. le Chevalier Hubert de Mauprat requested me to alight, and see what had become of his daughter, Edmée, who had been missing from the field long enough to cause him uneasiness. I ran for some distance, and when I was about thirty yards from Gazeau Tower I found M. Bernard de Mauprat in a state of great agitation. I had just heard a gun fired. I noticed that he was no longer carrying his carbine; he had thrown it down (discharged, as has been proved), a few yards away. We both hastened to Mademoiselle de Mauprat, whom we found lying on the ground with two bullets in her. Another man had reached her before us and was standing near her at this moment. He alone can make known the words he heard from her lips. She was unconscious when I saw her."
"But you heard the exact words from this individual," said the president; "for rumour has it that there is a close friendship between yourself and the learned peasant known as Patience,"
The abbé hesitated, and asked if the laws of conscience were not in this case at variance with the laws of the land; and if the judges had a right to ask a man to reveal a secret intrusted to his honour, and to make him break his word.
"You have taken an oath here in the name of Christ to tell the truth, the whole truth," was the reply. "It is for you to judge whether this oath is not more solemn than any you may have made previously."
"But, if I had received this secret under the seal of the confessional," said the abbé, "you certainly would not urge me to reveal it."
"I believe, Monsieur l'Abbé," said the president, "that it is some time since you confessed any one."
At this unbecoming remark I noticed an expression of mirth on John Mauprat's face—a fiendish mirth, which brought back to me the man as I knew him of old, convulsed with laughter at the sight of suffering and tears.
The annoyance which the abbé felt at this little personal attack gave him the courage which might otherwise have been wanting. He remained for a few moments with downcast eyes. They thought that he was humiliated; but, as soon as he raised his head, they saw his eyes flashing with the malicious obstinacy of the priest.
"All things considered," he said, in the most gentle tone, "I think that my conscience bids me keep this secret; I shall keep it."
"Aubert," said the King's advocate, angrily, "you are apparently unaware of the penalties which the law inflicts on witnesses who behave as you are doing."
"I am aware of them," replied the abbé, in a still milder tone.
"Doubtless, then, you do not intend to defy them?"
"I will undergo them if necessary," rejoined the abbé, with an imperceptible smile of pride, and such a dignified bearing that all the women were touched.
Women are excellent judges of things that are delicately beautiful.
"Very good," replied the public prosecutor. "Do you intend to persist in this course of silence?"
"Perhaps," replied the abbé.
"Will you tell us whether, during the days that followed this attempt to murder Mademoiselle de Mauprat, you were in a position to hear the words she uttered, either during her delirium or during her lucid intervals?"
"I can give you no information on that point," answered the abbé. "It would be against my inclinations, and, moreover, in my eyes, an outrage on propriety, to repeat words which, in the case of delirium, could prove absolutely nothing, and, if uttered in a lucid moment, could only have been the outpouring of a genuinely filial affection."
"Very good," said the King's advocate, rising. "We shall call upon the Court to deliberate on your refusal of evidence, taking this incident in connection with the main question."
"And I," said the president, "in virtue of my discretionary power, do order that Aubert be meanwhile arrested and taken to prison."
The abbé allowed himself to be led away with unaffected calmness. The spectators were filled with respect, and a profound silence reigned in court, in spite of the bitter efforts of the monks and curés, who continued to revile the heretic in an undertone.
When the various witnesses had been heard (and I must say that those who had been suborned played their part very feebly in public), to crown all, Mademoiselle Leblanc appeared. I was surprised to find the old maid so bitter against me and able to turn her hatred to such account. In truth, the weapons she could bring against me were only too powerful. In virtue of the right which domestics claim to listen at doors and overhear family secrets, this skilled misinterpreter and prolific liar had learnt and shaped to her own purposes most of the facts in my life which could be utilized for my ruin. She related how, seven years before, I had arrived at the château of Sainte-Sévère with Mademoiselle de Mauprat, whom I had rescued from the roughness and wickedness of my uncles.
"And let that be said," she added, turning toward John Mauprat with a polite bow, "without any reference to the holy man in this court, who was once a great sinner, and is now a great saint. But at what a price," she continued, facing the judges again, "had this miserable bandit saved my dear mistress! He had dishonoured her, gentlemen; and, throughout the days that followed, the poor young lady had abandoned herself to grief and shame on account of the violence which had been done her, for which nothing could bring consolation. Too proud to breathe her misfortune to a single soul, and too honest to deceive any man, she broke off her engagement with M. de la Marche, whom she loved passionately, and who returned her passion. She refused every offer of marriage that was made her, and all from a sense of honour, for in reality she hated M. Bernard. At first she wanted to kill herself; indeed, she had one of her father's little hunting-knives sharpened and (M. Marcasse can tell you the same, if he chooses to remember) she would certainly have killed herself, if I had not thrown this knife into the well belonging to the house. She had to think, too, of defending herself against the night attacks of her persecutor; and, as long as she had this knife, she always used to put it under her pillow; every night she would bolt the door of her room; and frequently I have seen her rush back, pale and ready to faint, quite out of breath, like a person who has just been pursued and had a great fright. When this gentleman began to receive some education, and learn good manners, mademoiselle, seeing that she could never have any other husband, since he was always talking of killing any man who dared to present himself, hoped he would get rid of his fierceness, and was most kind and good to him. She even nursed him during his illness; not that she liked and esteemed him as much as M. Marcasse was pleased to say in his version; but she was always afraid that in his delirium he might reveal, either to the servants or her father, the secret of the injury he had done her. This her modesty and pride made her most anxious to conceal, as all the ladies present will readily understand. When the family went to Paris for the winter of '77, M. Bernard became jealous and tyrannical, and threatened so frequently to kill M. de la Marche that mademoiselle was obliged to send the latter away. After that she had some violent scenes with Bernard, and declared that she did not and never would love him. In his rage and grief for it cannot be denied that he was enamoured of her in his tigerish fashion he went off to America, and during the six years he spent there his letters seemed to show that he had much improved. By the time he returned, mademoiselle had made up her mind to be an old maid, and had become quite calm again. And M. Bernard, too, seemed to have grown into a fairly good young gentleman. However, through seeing her every day and everlastingly leaning over the back of her arm-chair, or winding her skeins of wool and whispering to her while her father was asleep, he fell so deeply in love again that he lost his head. I do not wish to be too hard on him, poor creature! and I fancy his right place is in the asylum rather than on the scaffold. He used to shout and groan all night long; and the letters he wrote her were so stupid that she used to smile as she read them and then put them in her pocket without answering them. Here is one of these letters that I found upon her when I undressed her after the horrible deed; a bullet has gone through it, and it is stained with blood, but enough may still be read to show that monsieur frequently intended to kill mademoiselle."
So saying, she put down on the table a sheet of paper half burnt and half covered with blood, which sent a shudder through the spectators—genuine with some of them, mere affectation with many others.
Before this letter was read, she finished her deposition, and ended it with some assertions which perplexed me considerably; for I could no longer distinguish the boundary between truth and perfidy.
"Ever since her accident," she said, "mademoiselle has been hovering between life and death. She will certainly never recover, whatever the doctors may declare. I venture to say that these gentlemen, who only see the patient at certain hours, do not understand her illness as well as I, who have never left her for a single night. They pretend that her wounds are going on well and that her head is deranged; whereas I say that her wounds are going on badly, and that her head is better than they say. Mademoiselle very rarely talks irrationally, and if by chance she does, it is in presence of these gentlemen, who confuse and frighten her. She then makes such efforts not to appear mad that she actually becomes so; but as soon as they leave her alone with me or Saint-Jean or Monsieur l'Abbé, who could quite well have told you how things are, if he had wished, she becomes calm again, and sweet and sensible as usual. She says that she could almost die of pain, although to the doctors she pretends that she is scarcely suffering at all. And then she speaks of her murderer with the generosity that becomes a Christian; a hundred times a day she will say:
"'May God pardon him in the next life as I pardon him in this! After all, a man must be very fond of a woman to kill her! I was wrong not to marry him; perhaps he would have made me happy. I drove him to despair and he has avenged himself on me. Dear Leblanc, take care never to betray the secret I have told you. A single indiscreet word might send him to the scaffold, and that would be the death of my father.'
"The poor young lady is far from imagining that things have come to this pass; that I have been summoned by the law and my religion to make known what I would rather conceal; and that, instead of going out to get an apparatus for her shower-baths, I have come here to confess the truth. The only thing that consoles me is that it will be easy to hide all this from M. le Chevalier, who has no more sense now than a babe just born. For myself, I have done my duty; may God be my judge!"
After speaking thus with perfect self-possession and great volubility, Mademoiselle Leblanc sat down again amid a murmur of approbation, and they proceeded to read the letter which had been found on Edmée.
It was, indeed, the one I had written to her only a few days before the fatal day. They handed it to me; I could not help pressing my lips to the stains of Edmée's blood. Then, after glancing at the writing, I returned the letter, and declared quite calmly that it was written by me.
The reading of this letter was my coup de grâce. Fate, who seems ingenious in injuring her victims, had ordained (and perhaps some infamous hand had contributed to the mutilation) that the passages expressing my obedience and respect should be destroyed. Certain poetic touches which might have furnished an explanation of, and an excuse for, my wild ramblings, were illegible. What showed plain to every eye, and carried conviction to every mind, were the lines that remained intact, the lines that bore witness to the violence of my passion and the vehemence of my frenzy. They were such phrases as these: "Sometimes I feel inclined to rise in the middle of the night and go and kill you! I should have done this a hundred times, if I had been sure that I should love you no more after your death. Be considerate; for there are two men in me, and sometimes the brigand of old lords it over the new man, etc." A smile of triumph played about my enemies' mouths. My supporters were demoralized, and even my poor sergeant looked at me in despair. The public had already condemned me.
This incident afforded the King's advocate a fine chance of thundering forth a pompous address, in which he described me as an incurable blackguard, as an accursed branch of an accursed stock, as an example of the fatality of evil instincts. Then, after exerting himself to hold me up as an object of horror and fear, he endeavoured, in order to give himself an air of impartiality and generosity, to arouse the compassion of the judges in my favour; he proceeded to show that I was not responsible for my actions; that my mind had been perverted in early childhood by foul sights and vile principles, and was not sound, nor ever could have been, whatever the origin and growth of my passions. At last, after going through a course of philosophy and rhetoric, to the great delight of the audience, he demanded that I should be condemned to privation of civil rights and imprisonment for life.
Though my counsel was a man of spirit and intelligence, the letter had so taken him by surprise, the people in court were so unfavourably disposed towards me, and the judges, as they listened to him, so frequently showed signs of incredulity and impatience (an unseemly habit which appears to be the heritage of the magisterial benches of this country), that his defence was tame. All that he seemed justified in demanding with any vigour was a further inquiry. He complained that all the formalities had not been fulfilled; that sufficient light had not been thrown on certain points in the case; that it would be showing too much haste to give a verdict when several circumstances were still wrapped in mystery. He demanded that the doctors should be called to express an opinion as to the possibility of taking Mademoiselle de Mauprat's evidence. He pointed out that the most important, in fact the only important, testimony was that of Patience, and that Patience might appear any day and prove me innocent. Finally, he demanded that they should order a search to be made for the mendicant friar whose resemblance to the Mauprats had not yet been explained, and had been sworn to by trustworthy witnesses. In his opinion it was essential to discover what had become of Antony Mauprat, and to call upon the Trappist for information on this point. He complained bitterly that they had deprived him of all means of defence by refusing any delay; and he had the courage to assert that some evil passions must be responsible for such blind haste as had marked the conduct of this trial. On this the president called him to order. Then the King's advocate replied triumphantly that all formalities had been fulfilled; that the court was sufficiently enlightened; that a search for the mendicant friar would be a piece of folly and in bad taste, since John Mauprat had proved his last brother's death, which had taken place several years before. The court retired to deliberate; at the end of half an hour they came back with a verdict condemning me to death.