The History of a Crime, by Victor Hugo

Chapter xi.

The High Court of Justice

While all this was taking place on the left bank of the river, towards noon a man was noticed walking up and down the great Salles des Pas Perdus of the Palace of Justice. This man, carefully buttoned up in an overcoat, appeared to be attended at a distance by several possible supporters — for certain police enterprises employ assistants whose dubious appearance renders the passers-by uneasy, so much so that they wonder whether they are magistrates or thieves. The man in the buttoned-up overcoat loitered from door to door, from lobby to lobby, exchanging signs of intelligence with the myrmidons who followed him; then came back to the great Hall, stopping on the way the barristers, solicitors, ushers, clerks, and attendants, and repeating to all in a low voice, so as not to be heard by the passers-by, the same question. To this question some answered “Yes,” others replied “No.” And the man set to work again, prowling about the Palace of Justice with the appearance of a bloodhound seeking the trail.

He was a Commissary of the Arsenal Police.

What was he looking for?

The High Court of Justice.

What was the High Court of Justice doing?

It was hiding.

Why? To sit in Judgment?

Yes and no.

The Commissary of the Arsenal Police had that morning received from the Prefect Maupas the order to search everywhere for the place where the High Court of Justice might be sitting, if perchance it thought it its duty to meet. Confusing the High Court with the Council of State, the Commissary of Police had first gone to the Quai d’Orsay. Having found nothing, not even the Council of State, he had come away empty-handed, at all events had turned his steps towards the Palace of Justice, thinking that as he had to search for justice he would perhaps find it there.

Not finding it, he went away.

The High Court, however, had nevertheless met together.

Where, and how? We shall see.

At the period whose annals we are now chronicling, before the present reconstruction of the old buildings of Paris, when the Palace of Justice was reached by the Cour de Harlay, a staircase the reverse of majestic led thither by turning out into a long corridor called the Gallerie Mercière. Towards the middle of this corridor there were two doors; one on the right, which led to the Court of Appeal, the other on the left, which led to the Court of Cassation. The folding-doors to the left opened upon an old gallery called St. Louis, recently restored, and which serves at the present time for a Salle des Pas Perdus to the barristers of the Court of Cassation. A wooden statue of St. Louis stood opposite the entrance door. An entrance contrived in a niche to the right of this statue led into a winding lobby ending in a sort of blind passage, which apparently was closed by two double doors. On the door to the right might be read “First President’s Room;” on the door to the left, “Council Chamber.” Between these two doors, for the convenience of the barristers going from the Hall to the Civil Chamber, which formerly was the Great Chamber of Parliament, had been formed a narrow and dark passage, in which, as one of them remarked, “every crime could be committed with impunity.”

Leaving on one side the First President’s Room and opening the door which bore the inscription “Council Chamber,” a large room was crossed, furnished with a huge horse-shoe table, surrounded by green chairs. At the end of this room, which in 1793 had served as a deliberating hall for the juries of the Revolutionary Tribunal, there was a door placed in the wainscoting, which led into a little lobby where were two doors, on the right the door of the room appertaining to the President of the Criminal Chamber, on the left the door of the Refreshment Room. “Sentenced to death! — Now let us go and dine!” These two ideas, Death and Dinner, have jostled against each other for centuries. A third door closed the extremity of this lobby. This door was, so to speak, the last of the Palace of Justice, the farthest off, the least known, the most hidden; it opened into what was called the Library of the Court of Cassation, a large square room lighted by two windows overlooking the great inner yard of the Concièrgerie, furnished with a few leather chairs, a large table covered with green cloth, and with law books lining the walls from the floor to the ceiling.

This room, as may be seen, is the most secluded and the best hidden of any in the Palace.

It was here — in this room, that there arrived successively on the 2d December, towards eleven o’clock in the morning, numerous men dressed in black, without robes, without badges of office, affrighted, bewildered, shaking their heads, and whispering together. These trembling men were the High Court of Justice.

The High Court of Justice, according to the terms of the Constitution, was composed of seven magistrates; a President, four Judges, and two Assistants, chosen by the Court of Cassation from among its own members and renewed every year.

In December, 1851, these seven judges were named Hardouin, Pataille, Moreau, Delapalme, Cauchy, Grandet, and Quesnault, the two last-named being Assistants.

These men, almost unknown, had nevertheless some antecedents. M. Cauchy, a few years previously President of the Chamber of the Royal Court of Paris, an amiable man and easily frightened, was the brother of the mathematician, member of the Institute, to whom we owe the computation of waves of sound, and of the ex-Registrar Archivist of the Chamber of Peers. M. Delapalme had been Advocate–General, and had taken a prominent part in the Press trials under the Restoration; M. Pataille had been Deputy of the Centre under the Monarchy of July; M. Moreau (de la Seine) was noteworthy, inasmuch he had been nicknamed “de la Seine” to distinguish him from M. Moreau (de la Meurthe), who on his side was noteworthy, inasmuch as he had been nicknamed “de la Meurthe” to distinguish him from M. Moreau (de la Seine). The first Assistant, M. Grandet, had been President of the Chamber at Paris. I have read this panegyric of him: “He is known to possess no individuality or opinion of his own whatsoever.” The second Assistant, M. Quesnault, a Liberal, a Deputy, a Public Functionary, Advocate–General, a Conservative, learned, obedient, had attained by making a stepping-stone of each of these attributes, to the Criminal Chamber of the Court of Cassation, where he was known as one of the most severe members. 1848 had shocked his notion of Right, he had resigned after the 24th of February; he did not resign after the 2d December.

M. Hardouin, who presided over the High Court, was an ex-President of Assizes, a religious man, a rigid Jansenist, noted amongst his colleagues as a “scrupulous magistrate,” living in Port Royal, a diligent reader of Nicolle, belonging to the race of the old Parliamentarians of the Marais, who used to go to the Palais de Justice mounted on a mule; the mule had now gone out of fashion, and whoever visited President Hardouin would have found no more obstinacy in his stable than in his conscience.

On the morning of the 2d December, at nine o’clock, two men mounted the stairs of M. Hardouin’s house, No. 10, Rue de Condé, and met together at his door. One was M. Pataille; the other, one of the most prominent members of the bar of the Court of Cassation, was the ex-Constituent Martin (of Strasbourg). M. Pataille had just placed himself at M. Hardouin’s disposal.

Martin’s first thought, while reading the placards of the coup d’état, had been for the High Court. M. Hardouin ushered M. Pataille into a room adjoining his study, and received Martin (of Strasbourg) as a man to whom he did not wish to speak before witnesses. Being formally requested by Martin (of Strasbourg) to convene the High Court, he begged that he would leave him alone, declared that the High Court would “do its duty,” but that first he must “confer with his colleagues,” concluding with this expression, “It shall be done to-day or to-morrow.” “To-day or to-morrow!” exclaimed Martin (of Strasbourg); “Mr. President, the safety of the Republic, the safety of the country, perhaps, depends on what the High Court will or will not do. Your responsibility is great; bear that in mind. The High Court of Justice does not do its duty to-day or to-morrow; it does it at once, at the moment, without losing a minute, without an instant’s hesitation.”

Martin (of Strasbourg) was right, Justice always belongs to To-day.

Martin (of Strasbourg) added, “If you want a man for active work, I am at your service.” M. Hardouin declined the offer; declared that he would not lose a moment, and begged Martin (of Strasbourg) to leave him to “confer” with his colleague, M. Pataille.

In fact, he called together the High Court for eleven o’clock, and it was settled that the meeting should take place in the Hall of the Library.

The Judges were punctual. At a quarter-past eleven they were all assembled. M. Pataille arrived the last.

They sat at the end of the great green table. They were alone in the Library.

There was no ceremonial. President Hardouin thus opened the debate: “Gentlemen, there is no need to explain the situation, we all know what it is.”

Article 68 of the Constitution was imperative. It was necessary that the High Court should meet under penalty of high treason. They gained time, they swore themselves in, they appointed as Recorder of the High Court M. Bernard, Recorder of the Court of Cassation, and they sent to fetch him, and while waiting requested the librarian, M. Denevers, to hold his pen in readiness. They settled the time and place for an evening meeting. They talked of the conduct of the Constituent Martin (of Strasbourg), with which they were offended, regarding it almost as a nudge of the elbow given by Politics to Justice. They spoke a little of Socialism, of the Mountain, and of the Red Republic, and a little also of the judgment which they had to pronounce. They chatted, they told stories, they found fault, they speculated, they spun out the time.

What were they waiting for?

We have related what the Commissary of police was doing for his part in his department.

And, in reference to this design, when the accomplices of the coup d’état considered that the people in order to summon the High Court to do its duty, could invade the Palace of Justice, and that they would never look for it where it was assembled, they felt that this room had been excellently chosen. When, however, they considered that the police would also doubtless come to expel the High Court, and that perhaps they would not succeed in finding it, each one regretted to himself the choice of the room. They wished to hide the High Court, they had succeeded too well. It was grievous to think that perhaps when the police and the armed force should arrive, matters would have gone too far, and the High Court would be too deeply compromised.

They had appointed a Recorder, now they must organize a Court. A second step, more serious than the first.

The judges delayed, hoping that fortune would end by deciding on one side or the other, either for the Assembly or for the President, either against the coup d’état or for it, and that there might thus be a vanquished party, so that the High Court could then with all safety lay its hands upon somebody.

They lengthily argued the question, whether they should immediately decree the accusation of the President, or whether they should draw up a simple order of inquiry. The latter course was adopted.

They drew up a judgment, not the honest and outspoken judgment which was placarded by the efforts of the Representatives of the Left and published, in which are found these words of bad taste, Crime and High Treason; this judgment, a weapon of war, has never existed otherwise than as a projectile. Wisdom in a judge sometimes consists in drawing up a judgment which is not one, one of those judgments which has no binding force, in which everything is conditional; in which no one is incriminated, and nothing, is called by its right name. There are species of intermediate courses which allow of waiting and seeing; in delicate crises men who are in earnest must not inconsiderately mingle with possible events that bluntness which is called Justice. The High Court took advantage of this, it drew up a prudent judgment; this judgment is not known; it is published here for the first time. Here it is. It is a masterpiece of equivocal style:—

EXTRACT FROM THE REGISTRY OF THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE.

“The High Court of Justice.

“According to Article 68 of the Constitution, considering that
printed placards beginning with these words, ‘The President of the
Republic’ and ending with the signatures, ‘Louis Napoléon Bonaparte’
and ‘De Morny, Minister of the Interior,’ the said placards ordaining
amongst other measures the dissolution of the National Assembly, have
been posted to-day on the walls of Paris, that this fact of the
dissolution of the National Assembly by the President of the Republic
would be of the nature to constitute the case provided for by Article
68 of the Constitution, and renders, in the terms of the aforesaid
article, the meeting of the High Court indispensable.

“It is declared that the High Court of Justice is organized, that it
appoints4 . . . to fulfil with it the functions of the Public
Ministry; that M. Bernard, the Recorder of the Court of Cassation,
should fulfil the duties of Recorder, and in order to proceed
further, according to the terms of the aforesaid Article 68 of the
Constitution, the Court will adjourn until to-morrow, the 3d of
December, at noon.

“Drawn up and discussed in the Council Chamber, where were sitting
MM. Hardouin, president, Pataille, Moreau, Delapalme, and Cauchy,
judges, December 2, 1851.”

The two Assistants, MM. Grandet and Quesnault, offered to sign the decree, but the President ruled that it would be more correct only to accept the signatures of the titular judges, the Assistants not being qualified when the Court was complete.

In the meantime it was one o’clock, the news began to spread through the palace that a decree of deposition against Louis Bonaparte had been drawn up by a part of the Assembly; one of the judges who had gone out during the debate, brought back this rumor to his colleagues. This coincided with an outburst of energy. The President observed that it would be to the purpose to appoint a Procureur–General.

There was a difficulty. Whom should they appoint? In all preceding trials they had always chosen for a Procureur–General at the High Court the Procureur–General at the Court of Appeal of Paris. Why should they introduce an innovation? They determined upon this Procureur–General of the Court of Appeal. This Procureur–General was at the time M. de Royer, who had been keeper of the Seals for M. Bonaparte. Thence a new difficulty and a long debate.

Would M. de Royer consent? M. Hardouin undertook to go and make the offer to him. He had only to cross the Mercière Gallery.

M. de Royer was in his study. The proposal greatly embarrassed him. He remained speechless from the shock. To accept was serious, to refuse was still more serious.

There was risk of treason. On the 2d December, an hour after noon, the coup d’état was still a crime. M. de Royer, not knowing whether the high treason would succeed, ventured to stigmatize the deed as such in private, and cast down his eyes with a noble shame before this violation of the laws which, three months later, numerous purple robes, including his own, endorsed with their oaths. But his indignation did not go to the extent of supporting the indictment. An indictment speaks aloud. M. de Royer as yet only murmured. He was perplexed.

M. Hardouin understood this state of conscience. Persistence would have been unreasonable. He withdrew.

He returned to the room where his colleagues were awaiting him.

In the meantime the Commissary of the Arsenal Police had come back.

He had ended by succeeding in “unearthing”— such was his expression — the High Court. He penetrated as far as the Council Chamber of the Civil Chamber; at that moment he had still no other escort than the few police agents of the morning. A boy was passing by. The Commissary asked him the whereabouts of the High Court. “The High Court?” answered the boy; “what is that?” Nevertheless the boy told the Librarian, who came up. A few words were exchanged between M. Denevers and the Commissary.

“What are you asking for?”

“The High Court.”

“Who are you?”

“I want the high Court.”

“It is in session.”

“Where is it sitting?”

“Here.”

And the Librarian pointed to the door.

“Very well,” said the Commissary.

He did not add another word, and returned into the Mercière Gallery.

We have just said that he was only accompanied at that time by a few police agents.

The High Court was, in truth, in session. The President was relating to the judges his visit to the Procureur General. Suddenly a tumultuous sound of footsteps is heard in the lobby which leads from the Council Chamber to the room where they were deliberating. The door opens abruptly. Bayonets appear, and in the midst of the bayonets a man in a buttoned-up overcoat, with a tricolored sash upon his coat.

The magistrates stare, stupefied.

“Gentlemen,” said the man, “dissolve your meeting immediately.”

President Hardouin rises.

“What does this mean? Who are you? Are you aware to whom you are speaking?”

“I am aware. You are the High Court, and I am the Commissary of the Police.”

“Well, then?”

“Be off.”

There were there thirty-five municipal guards, commanded by a lieutenant, and with a drum at their head.

“But ——” said the President.

The Commissary interrupted him with these words, which are literally given —

“Mr. President, I am not going to enter upon an oratorical combat with you. I have my orders, and I transmit them to you. Obey.”

“Whom?”

“The Prefect of Police.”

The President asked this strange question, which implied the acceptance of an order —

“Have you a warrant?”

The Commissary answered —

“Yes.”

And he handed a paper to the President.

The judges turned pale.

The President unfolded the paper; M. Cauchy put his head over M. Hardouin’s shoulder. The President read but —

“You are ordered to dissolve the High Court, and, in case of refusal, to arrest MM. Béranger, Rocher, De Boissieux, Pataille, and Hello.”

And, turning towards the judges, the President added —

“Signed, Maupas.”

Then, addressing himself to the Commissary, he resumed —

“There is some mistake, these are not our names. MM. Béranger, Rocher, and De Boissieux have served their time and are no longer judges of the High Court; as for M. Hello, he is dead.”

The High Court, in reality, was temporary and renewable; the coup d’état overthrew the Constitution, but did not understand it. The warrant signed “Maupas” was applicable to the preceding High Court. The coup d’état had been misled by an old list. Such is the heedlessness of assassins.

“Mr. Commissary of Police,” continued the President, “you see that these names are not ours.”

“That does not matter to me,” replied the Commissary. “Whether this warrant does or does not apply to you, disperse, or I shall arrest all of you.”

And he added —

“At once.”

The judges were silenced; one of them picked up from the table a loose sheet of paper, which was the judgment they had drawn up, and put the paper in his pocket.

Then they went away.

The Commissary pointed to the door where the bayonets were, and said —

“That way.”

They went out by the lobby between two ranks of soldiers. The detachment of Republican Guards escorted them as far as the St. Louis Gallery.

There they set them free; their heads bowed down.

It was about three o’clock.

While these events were taking place in the Library, close by, in the former great Chamber of the Parliament, the Court of Cassation was sitting in judgment as usual, without noticing what was happening so near at hand. It would appear, then, that the police exhaled no odor.

Let us at once have done with this High Court.

In the evening at half-past seven the seven judges met together at the house of one of their number, he who had taken away the decree; they framed an official report, drew up a protest, and recognizing the necessity of filling in the line left blank in their decree, on the proposition of M. Quesnault, appointed as Procureur–General M. Renouard, their colleague at the Court of Cessation. M. Renouard, who was immediately informed, consented.

They met together for the last time on the next day, the 3d, at eleven o’clock in the morning, an hour before the time mentioned in the judgment which we have read above — again in the Library of the Court of Cassation. M. Renouard was present. An official minute was given to him, recording his appointment, as well as certain details with which he asked to be supplied. The judgment which had been drawn up was taken by M. Quesnault to the Recorder’s Office, and immediately entered upon the Register of the Secret Deliberations of the Court of Cassation, the High Court not having a Special Register, and having decided, from its creation, to use the Register of the Court of Cassation. After the decree they also transcribed the two documents described as follows on the Register:—

I. An official report recording the interference of the police during the discussion upon the preceding decree.

II. A minute of the appointment of M. Renouard to the office of Procureur–General.

In addition seven copies of these different documents drawn up by the hands of the judges themselves, and signed by them all, were put in a place of safety, as also, it is said, a note-book, in which were written five other secret decisions relating to the coup d’état.

Does this page of the Register of the Court of Cassation exist at the present time? Is it true, as has been stated, that the prefect Maupas sent for the Register and tore out the leaf containing the decree? We have not been able to clear up this point. The Register now is shown to no one, and those employed at the Recorder’s Office are dumb.

Such are the facts, let us summarize them. If this Court so called “High,” had been of a character to conceive such an idea as that of doing its duty — when it had once met together the mere organization of itself was a matter of a few minutes — it would have proceeded resolutely and rapidly, it would have appointed as Procureur–General some energetic man belonging to the Court of Cassation, either from the body of magistrates, such as Freslon, or from the bar, like Martin (of Strasbourg). By virtue of Article 68, and without waiting the initiative of the Assembly, it would have drawn up a judgment stigmatizing the crime, it would have launched an order of arrest against the President and his accomplices and have ordered the removal of the person of Louis Bonaparte to jail. As for the Procureur–General he would have issued a warrant of arrest. All this could have been done by half-past eleven, and at that time no attempt had been made to dissolve the High Court. These preliminary proceedings concluded, the High Court, by going out through a nailed-up door leading into the Salle des Pas Perdus, could have descended into the street, and there have proclaimed its judgment to the people. At this time it would have met with no hindrance. Finally, and this in any case, it should have sat robed on the Judges’ Bench, with all magisterial state, and when the police agent and his soldiers appeared should have ordered the soldiers, who perhaps would have obeyed them, to arrest the agent, and if the soldiers had disobeyed, should have allowed themselves to be formally dragged to prison, so that the people could see, under their own eyes, out in the open street, the filthy hoof of the coup d’état trampling upon the robe of Justice.

Instead of this, what steps did the High Court take? We have just seen.

“Be off with you!”

“We are going.”

We can imagine, after a very different fashion, the dialogue between Mathieu Molé and Vidocq.

4 This line was left blank. It was filled in later on with the name of M. Renouard, Councillor of the Court of Cassation.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38