Before The Court
Since the poisoning of the Prince of Conde by his servant, Brillaut, at the instigation--as was alleged and commonly believed--of Madame la Princesse, no tragedy of the kind had caused a greater sensation in Paris, or been the subject of more talk, than the murder of M. de Vidoche. The remarkable circumstances which attended it--and which lost nothing in the narration, its immediate discovery, the apparent lack of motive, and the wealth, rank, and youth of the guilty wife, all helped, with the fullness of Paris at this time and the absence of any stirring political news, to make it the one topic of interest. Nothing else was talked of in chamber or tennis court, in the Grand Gallery at the Louvre, or in the cardinal's ante-room at the Palais Richelieu. Culprit and victim were alike well know. M. de Vidoche, if no favorite, had been at least a conspicuous figure in society. He had been cast for one of the parts in the royal troupe at the Christmas carnival. His flirtation with Mademoiselle de Farincourt had been sufficiently marked to cause both amusement and interest. And if madame was a less familiar figure at Court, if she had a reputation somewhat prudish, and an air of rusticity that did not belie it, and was even less of a favorite than her husband, her position as a great heiress and the last of an old family gave her a cachet which did not fail to make her interesting now.
Gladly would the great ladies in their coaches have gone down to the Chatelet to stare at her after the cruel fashion of that day; and, after buzzing round her in her misery, have gone away with a hundred tales of how she looked, and what she wore, and what she said in prison. But madame was saved this--this torture worse than the question--by the physician's order that no one should be admitted to her. He laid this down so strenuously--telling the lieutenant that if she had not complete repose for twenty-four hours he would be answerable neither for her life nor her reason--that that officer, who, like the Chevalier du Guet, was an old soldier, replied "No" to the most pressing insistences; and save and except Father Bernard, who had the entree at all hours by the king's command, would let no one go in to her. "It will be bad enough by-and-bye," he said, with an oath. "If she did it, she will be punished. But she shall have a little peace today."
But the great world, baffled on this point, grew only the more curious; circulated stories only the more outrageous; and nodded and winked and whispered only the more assiduously. Would she be put to the question? And by the rack, or the boot, or the water torture? And who was the man? Of course there was a man. Now if it had been M. de Vidoche who had poisoned her, that would have been plain, intelligible, perspicuous; since everyone knew--and so on, and so on, with Mademoiselle de Farincourt's name at intervals.
It was believed that madame would be first examined in private; but late at night, on the day before Christmas Eve, a sealed order came to the Lieutenant of the Chatelet, commanding him to present madame, with her servants and all concerned in the case, at the Palais de Justice on the following morning. Late as it was, the news was known in every part of Paris that night. Marshal Bassompierre, lying in the Bastille, heard it, and regretted he could not see the sight. It was rumored that the king would attend in person; even that the trial had been hastened for his pleasure. It was certain that half the Court would be there, and the other half, if it could find room. The great ladies, who had failed to storm the Chatelet, hoped to succeed better at the Palais, and the First President of the Court, and even the Commissioners appointed to sit with him, found their doors beset at dawn with delicate "poulets," or urgent, importunate applications.
Madame de Vidoche, the man and maid, were brought from the Chatelet to the Conciergerie an hour before daylight-madame in her coach, with her woman, the man on foot. That cold morning ride was such as few, thank God, are called on to endure. To the horrors of anticipation the lost wife, scarcely more than a girl, had to add the misery of retrospection; to the knowledge of what she had done, a woman's shrinking from the doom that threatened her, from shame and pain and death. But that which she felt perhaps as keenly as anything, as she crouched in a corner of her curtained vehicle and heard the yells which everywhere saluted its appearance, was the sudden sense of loneliness and isolation. True, the Lieutenant sat opposite to her, but his face was hard. She was no longer a woman to him, but a prisoner, a murderess, a poisoner. And the streets were thronged, in spite of the cold and the early hour. On the Pont au Change the people ran beside the coach and strove to get a sight of her, and jeered and sang and shouted. And at the entrance to the Palais, in the room in the Conciergerie where she had to wait, on the staircase to the court above, everywhere it was the same; all were set so thick with faces--staring, curious faces--that the guards could scarcely make a way for her. But she was cut off from all. She was no longer of them--of things living. Not one said a kind word to her; not one looked sympathy or pity. On a sudden, in a moment, with hundreds gazing at her, she a delicate woman, found herself a thing apart, unclean, to be shunned. A thing, no longer a person. A prisoner, no longer a woman.
They placed a seat for her, and she sank into it, feeling at first nothing but the shame of being so stared at. But presently she had to rise and be sworn, and then, as she became conscious of other things, as the details of the crowded chamber forced themselves on her attention, and she saw which were the judges, and heard herself called upon to answer the questions that should be put to her, the instinct of self-preservation, the desire to clear herself, to escape and live, took hold of her. A late instinct, for hitherto all her thoughts had been of the man she had killed--her husband; but the fiercer for that. A burning flush suddenly flamed in her cheeks. Her eyes grew bright, her heart began to beat quickly. She turned giddy.
She knew only of one way in which she could escape; only of one man that could help her and even while the first judge was in the act of calling upon her, she turned from him and looked round. She looked to the right, to the left, then behind her, for Notredame. He, if he told the truth, could clear her! He could say that she had come to him for a charm, and not for poison! And he only! But where was he? There was her woman, trembling and weeping, waiting to be called. There was the valet, pale and frightened. There were twice a hundred indifferent people. But Notredame? He was not visible. He was not there. When she had satisfied herself of this, she sank back with a moan of despair. She gave up hope again. A hundred curious eyes saw the color fade from her cheeks; her eyes grew dull, the whole woman collapsed.
The examination began. She gave her name in a hollow whisper.
It was the practice of that day, and still is, in French courts, to take advantage of any self-betrayal or emotion on the part of the accused person. It is the duty of the judges to observe the prisoner constantly and narrowly; and the First President, on an occasion such as this, was not the man to overlook anything which was visible to the ordinary spectator. Instead, therefore, of pursuing the regular interrogatory he had in his mind, he leaned forward and asked madame what was the matter.
"I wish for the man Solomon Notredame," Madame de Vidoche answered, rising and speaking in a choking voice.
"That is the man from whom you bought the poison, I think?" the judge answered, affecting to look at his notes.
"Yes, but as a love-philtre--not a poison," madame said in a whisper. "I wish him to be here."
"You wish to be confronted with him?"
"With the man Solomon Notredame?"
"Then you shall be, presently," the judge replied, leaning back, and casting a singular glance at his colleagues. "Be satisfied. And now, madame," he continued gravely, as his eyes returned to her, "it is my duty to help you to tell, and your duty to confess frankly, all that you know concerning this matter. Be good enough, therefore, to collect yourself, and answer my questions fully and truly, as you hope for mercy here and hereafter. So you will save yourself pain, and such also as shall examine you; and may best deserve, in the worst case, the king's indulgence."
As he uttered this exhortation madame clung to the bar behind which she stood, and seemed for the moment about to faint, so that the President waited awhile before he proceeded. She looked, indeed, ghostly. Her white face gleamed through the fog--which, rising from the river, was fast filling the chamber--like a face seen for an instant on a wreck through mist and spray and tempest. Ladies who had known her as an equal, and who now gazed heartlessly down at her from galleries, felt a pleasant thrill of excitement, and whispered that they had not braved the early cold for nothing. There was not a man in the court who did not expect to see her fall.
But there is in women a power of endurance far exceeding that of men. By an immense effort madame regained control over herself. She answered the President's opening questions faintly but clearly; and, being led at once to tell of her visit to Notredame, had sufficient sense of her position to dwell plainly on the two facts important to her--that the object of her visit was a love-potion, and not a poison, and that the instructions first given to her were to take it herself. The latter assertion produced a startling impression in the court. It was completely unexpected; and though ninety-nine out of a hundred fancied it the bold invention of a desperate woman, all allowed that it added zest to the case.
Naturally the President pressed her hard on these points. He strove, both by cajolery and by stating objections, to make her withdraw from them. But she would not. Nor could he entrap her into narrating anything at variance with them. At length he desisted. "Very well, we will leave that," he said; and so subtly had her story gained sympathy for her that the sigh of relief uttered in the court was perfectly audible. "We will pass on, if you please. The boy who overtook you in the street, and, as you say, altered all? Who was he, madame?"
"I do not know."
"You had seen him before?"
"Did he not open the door at this Notredame's when you entered the house?"
"Nor when you left?"
"How did you know, then, madame, that he came from this abominable person whom you had been visiting?"
"He said he did."
"And do you tell us," the judge retorted, "that on the mere word of this boy, whom you did not know and had never seen, without the assurance of any token or countersign you disregarded the man Notredame's direction on the most vital point, and, instead of taking this drug yourself, gave it to your husband?"
"Without suspecting that it was other than that for which you had asked?"
"Madame," the judge said slowly, "it is incredible." He looked for a moment at his colleagues, as if to collect their opinions. They nodded. He turned to her again. "Do you not see that?" he said almost kindly.
"I do not," madame answered firmly. "It is true."
"Describe the boy, if you please."
"He had--I think he had dark clothes," she answered, faltering for the first time. "He looked about twelve years old."
"Yes," the President said; "go on."
"He had--I could not see any more," madame muttered faintly. "It was dark."
"And do you expect us to believe this?" the President replied with warmth, real or assumed. "Do you expect us to believe such a story? Or that it was at the instance of this boy only--this boy of whom you knew nothing, whom you cannot describe, whom you had never seen before--that it was at his instance only that you gave this drug to your husband, instead of taking it yourself?"
She reeled slightly, clinging to the bar. The court swam before her. She saw, as he meant her to see, the full hopelessness of her position, the full strength of the case which fate had made against her, her impotence, her helplessness. Yet she forced herself to make an effort. "It is the truth," she said, in a broken voice. "I loved him."
"Ah!" the President replied cynically. He repressed by a gesture a slight disturbance at the rear of the court. "That, of course. It is part of the story. Or why a love-philtre? But do you not see, madame," he continued, bending his brows and speaking in the tone he used to common criminals. "that all the wives in Paris might poison their husbands, and when they were found out say 'It was a love-potion,' if you are to escape? No, no; we must have some better tale than that."
She looked at him in terror and shame. "I have no other," she cried wildly. "That is the truth. If you do not believe me, there is Notredame. Ask him."
"You applied to be confronted with him some time back," the President answered, looking aside at his colleagues, who nodded. "Is that still your desire?"
She murmured "Yes," with dry lips.
"Then let him be called," the judge answered solemnly. "Let Solomon Notredame be called and confronted with the accused."
The order was received with a general stir, a movement of curiosity and expectation. Those in the galleries leaned forward to see the better; those at the back stood up. Madame, with her lips parted and her breath coming quickly--madame, the poor centre of all--gazed with her soul in her eyes toward the door at which she saw others gazing. All for her depended on this man--the man she was about to see. Would he lie and accuse her? Or would he tell the truth and corroborate her story--say, in a word, that she had come for a love-charm, and not for poison? Surely this last? Surely it would be to his interest?
But while she gazed with her soul in her eyes, the door which had been partly opened fell shut again, and disappointed her. At the same moment, there was a general movement and rustling round her, an uprising in every part of the chamber. In bewilderment, almost in impatience, she turned toward the judges and found that they had risen too. Then through a door behind them she saw six gentlemen file in, with a flash and sparkle of color that lit up the sombre bench. The first was the king.
Louis was about thirty-five years old at this time--a dark, sallow man, wearing black, with a wide-leafed hat, in which a costly diamond secured a plume of white feathers. He carried a walking cane, and saluted the judges as he entered. Three gentlemen--two about the king's age, the third a burly, soldierly man of sixty--followed him, and took their places behind the canopied chair placed for him. The fifth to enter--but he passed behind the judges and took a chair which stood on their left--wore a red robe trimmed with fur, and a small red cap. He was a man of middle height and pale complexion, keen Italian features and bright piercing eyes, and so far was not remarkable. But he had also a coal-black moustache and chin tuft, and milk-white hair; and this contrast won him recognition everywhere. He was Armand Jean du Plessis, Duke and Cardinal Richelieu, soldier, priest, and play-writer, and for sixteen years the ruler of France.
Madame gazed a them with a beating heart, with wild hopes that would rise, despite herself. But, oh God! how coldly their eyes met hers! With, what a stony stare! With what curiosity, indifference, contempt! Alas, they had come for that. They had come to stare. This was their Christmas show--part of their Christmas revels. And she--she was woman on her trial, a poisoner, a murderess, a vile thing to be questioned, tortured, dragged to a shameful death!
For a moment or two the king talked with the judges. Then he sat back in his chair. The President made a sign, and an usher in a sonorous voice cried, "Solomon Notredame! Let Solomon Notredame stand forth!"
Chapter VIII Chapter X