Page:010 Once a week Volume X Dec 1863 to Jun 64.pdf/73

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Jan. 9, 1864.



he had. Discussing the means of raising money, the pair found that nothing remained to them but this casket, which a Jew had long wanted to buy of the girl. Before selling it, Coignard thought it would be as well to look at the contents. They were the dead count's patents of nobility, and certificates of his having served honourably in Spain and America. The next day the pair left that part of Spain, assuming the names of the Count and Countess de Sainte-Hélène, and Coignard, as an exile with no dependence but his sword, soon found military employment in a country where a title possesses a sort of charm.

We know in part what was the subsequent life of this man, and have seen how he was in a fair way to reach the highest honours, when the revelations of an old fellow-convict toppled him down; but the most singular part, perhaps, of his career remains to be noticed. As far as could be learned, his conduct for a period of ten years after his escape from prison had been free from crime, except of course as regards the assumption of a borrowed title; but it was in Paris that his old course of guilt had been run, and on his return to Paris he renewed acquaintance with his former associates. His intelligence and boldness, and the high social position he occupied, placed him naturally at the head of an organised band, of which, next to himself, his countess and his brother were the most distinguished members. Coignard, accompanied perhaps by his lady, would pay a visit to some great man, and would take advantage of a momentary absence to get an impression of the locks of drawers in which he had reason to suspect that valuables were kept. A plan would then be arranged by the band; the absence of the master of the house would be known to Coignard, and by him notified to his associates, who in a twinkling would carry off all the plate in the house. On the morrow Coignard would call, sympathise, and offer his services in tracing the robbers. After a while he would declare to the police that he had made discoveries, and, having put them on a wrong scent, would be at liberty to plan a fresh enterprise. Others, again, had bitter reason to recollect visits of the countess, during which Alexander Coignard, the footman, would carefully study the weak points of the house, from which all the plate would disappear soon after.

On his trial Coignard persisted in claiming his assumed name. To the president, who addressed him as simple Peter Coignard, he replied: "I have already had the honour to inform M. le President that my name is De Pontis, and that I will not answer any questions addressed to Coignard; if death stared me in the face, I would say the same thing." The president was obliged to give way, and thenceforth addressed him as "first prisoner." No doubt whatever was left in the minds of the jury that they had before them Coignard the convict; he had in fact in an unguarded moment betrayed himself while in prison. It was, however, fully proved that his conduct and courage while serving in Spain had been deserving of the highest praise, testimony which he supported by baring his breast before the audience, and showing them the scars with which it was furrowed. It was to these facts, and to a certain dignity in his manner, that he owed the merciful consideration of the jury. He had shot at an agent of police who had tried to arrest him, but he was acquitted on the charge of attempted homicide, and after a trial of two days, was condemned to hard labour for life.

An immense crowd flocked to the Bicêtre to witness the departure of the chain in which was the felon whose daring fraud had brought him into the presence and favour of his sovereign, and in every town through which his road lay the same curiosity was excited. His arrival at Toulon, his old place of confinement, was hailed with enthusiasm by his old comrades. The ex-countess, who had been acquitted, followed him to Toulon that she might still be near him in his captivity, and there she remained till he died, at the end of a few years.

The previous dispersion of the old French nobility, and the unsettled state of affairs in France, go some way to explain the success of Coignard's fraud; but the social position which he reached, and the length of time during which he maintained it with perfect external propriety, place him perhaps at the head of all modern swindlers of this stamp.


Well do I remember going, when a child, upon errands to my father's bankers, Messrs. Pound, Schilling, Pense, & Co. The little slips of green paper, so curiously inscribed with phrases and devices, filled in by my father with figures, and signed with his signature, I can see now; the solid, ringing pieces of gold and silver that I received in exchange are still tingling in the palms of my hands. That pale, solemn, stoical face of the cashier, intrenched behind the high mahogany desk which I had to storm—its expression of intellectual concentration never brightened by a ray of mirth, or ruffled by those multifarious noises which I thought enough to confound it—is present to my mind's eye at this moment. I can see, too, those pliant fingers of his, seized at particular moments with fits of con-