It was only when he had been led away to his new cell and the door was locked on him that Coconnas, left alone, and no longer sustained by the discussion with the judges and his anger at Réné, fell into a train of mournful reflections.
“It seems to me,” thought he, “that matters are turning against us, and that it is about time to go to the chapel. I suspect we are to be condemned to death. It looks so. I especially fear being condemned to death by sentences pronounced behind closed doors, in a fortified castle, before faces as ugly as those about me. They really wish to cut off our heads. Well! well! I repeat what I said just now, it is time to go to chapel.”
These words, uttered in a low tone, were followed by a silence, which in turn was broken by a cry, shrill, piercing, lugubrious, unlike anything human. It seemed to penetrate the thick walls, and vibrate against the iron bars.
In spite of himself Coconnas shivered; and yet he was so brave that his courage was like that of wild beasts. He stood still, doubting that the cry was human, and taking it for the sound of the wind in the trees or for one of the many night noises which seem to rise or descend from the two unknown worlds between which floats our globe. Then he heard it again, shriller, more prolonged, more piercing than before, and this time not only did Coconnas distinguish the agony of the human tone in it, but he thought it sounded like La Mole’s.
As he realized this the Piedmontese forgot that he was confined behind two doors, three gates, and a wall twelve feet thick. He hurled his entire weight against the sides of the cell as though to push them out and rush to the aid of the victim, crying, “Are they killing some one here?” But he unexpectedly encountered the wall and the shock hurled him back against a stone bench on which he sank down.
Then there was silence.
“Oh, they have killed him!” he murmured; “it is abominable! And one is without arms, here, and cannot defend one’s self!”
He groped about.
“Ah! this iron chain!” he cried, “I will take it and woe to him who comes near me!”
Coconnas rose, seized the iron chain, and with a pull shook it so violently that it was clear that with two such efforts he would wrench it away.
But suddenly the door opened and the light from a couple of torches fell into the cell.
“Come, monsieur,” said the same voice which had sounded so disagreeable to him, and which this time, in making itself heard three floors below, did not seem to him to have acquired any new charm.
“Come, monsieur, the court is awaiting you.”
“Good,” said Coconnas, dropping his ring, “I am to hear my sentence, am I not?”
“Oh! I breathe again; let us go,” said he.
He followed the usher, who preceded him with measured tread, holding his black rod.
In spite of the satisfaction he had felt at first, as he walked along Coconnas glanced anxiously about him.
“Oh!” he murmured, “I do not perceive my good jailer. I confess I miss him.”
They entered the hall the judges had just left, in which a man was standing alone, whom Coconnas recognized as the Attorney–General. In the course of the examination the latter had spoken several times, always with an animosity easy to understand.
He was the one whom Catharine, both by letter and in person, had specially charged with the trial.
At the farther end of this room, the corners of which were lost in darkness behind a partly raised curtain, Coconnas saw such dreadful sights that he felt his limbs give away, and cried out: “Oh, my God!”
It was not without cause that the cry had been uttered. The sight was indeed terrible. The portion of the room hidden during the trial by the curtain, which was now drawn back, looked like the entrance to hell.
A wooden horse was there, to which were attached ropes, pulleys, and other accessories of torture. Further on glowed a brazier, which threw its lurid glare on the surrounding objects, and which added to the terror of the spectacle. Against one of the pillars which supported the ceiling stood a man motionless as a statue, holding a rope in his hand. He looked as though made of the stone of the column against which he leaned. To the walls above the stone benches, between iron links, chains were suspended and blades glittered.
“Oh!” murmured Coconnas, “the chamber of horrors is all ready, apparently waiting only for the patient! What can it mean?”
“On your knees, Marc Annibal Coconnas,” said a voice which caused that gentleman to raise his head. “On your knees to hear the sentence just pronounced on you!”
This was an invitation against which the whole soul of Annibal instinctively rebelled.
But as he was about to refuse two men placed their hands on his shoulders so unexpectedly and so suddenly that his knees bent under him on the pavement. The voice continued.
“Sentence of the court sitting in the prison of Vincennes on Marc Annibal de Coconnas, accused and convicted of high treason, of an attempt to poison, of sacrilege and magic against the person of the King, of a conspiracy against the kingdom, and of having by his pernicious counsels driven a prince of the blood to rebellion.”
At each charge Coconnas had shaken his head, keeping time like a fractious child. The judge continued:
“In consequence of which, the aforesaid Marc Annibal de Coconnas shall be taken from prison to the Place Saint Jean en Grève to be there beheaded; his property shall be confiscated; his woods cut down to the height of six feet; his castles destroyed, and a post planted there with a copper plate bearing an inscription of his crime and punishment.”
“As for my head,” said Coconnas, “I know you will cut that off, for it is in France, and in great jeopardy; but as for my woods and castles, I defy all the saws and axes of this most Christian kingdom to harm them.”
“Silence!” said the judge; and he continued:
“Furthermore, the aforesaid Coconnas”—
“What!” interrupted Coconnas, “is something more to be done to me after my head is cut off? Oh! that seems to me very hard!”
“No, monsieur,” said the judge, “before.”
And he resumed:
“Furthermore, the aforesaid Coconnas before the execution of his sentence shall undergo the severest torture, consisting of ten wedges”—
Coconnas sprang up, flashing a burning glance at the judge.
“And for what?” he cried, finding no other words but these simple ones to express the thousand thoughts that surged through his mind.
In reality this was complete ruin to Coconnas’ hopes. He would not be taken to the chapel until after the torture, from which many frequently died. The braver and stronger the victim, the more likely he was to die, for it was considered an act of cowardice to confess; and so long as the prisoner refused to confess the torture was continued, and not only continued, but increased.
The judge did not reply to Coconnas; the rest of the sentence answered for him. He continued:
“In order to compel the aforesaid Coconnas to confess in regard to his accomplices, and the details of the plan and conspiracy.”
“By Heaven!” cried Coconnas; “this is what I call infamous; more than infamous — cowardly!”
Accustomed to the anger of his victims, which suffering always changed to tears, the impassible judge merely made a sign.
Coconnas was seized by the feet and the shoulders, overpowered, laid on his back, and bound to the rack before he was able even to see those who did the act.
“Wretches!” shouted he, in a paroxysm of fury, straining the bed and the cords so that the tormentors themselves drew back. “Wretches! torture me, twist me, break me to pieces, but you shall know nothing, I swear! Ah! you think, do you, that it is with pieces of wood and steel that a gentleman of my name is made to speak? Go ahead! I defy you!”
“Prepare to write, clerk,” said the judge.
“Yes, prepare,” shouted Coconnas; “and if you write everything I am going to tell you you infamous hangmen, you will be kept busy. Write! write!”
“Have you anything you wish to confess?” asked the judge in his calm voice.
“Nothing; not a word! Go to the devil!”
“You had better reflect, monsieur. Come, executioner, adjust the boot.”
At these words the man, who until then had stood motionless, the ropes in his hand, stepped forward from the pillar and slowly approached Coconnas, who turned and made a grimace at him.
It was Maître Caboche, the executioner of the provostship of Paris.
A look of sad surprise showed itself on the face of Coconnas, who, instead of crying out and growing agitated, lay without moving, unable to take his eyes from the face of the forgotten friend who appeared at that moment.
Without moving a muscle of his face, without showing that he had ever seen Coconnas anywhere except on the rack, Caboche placed two planks between the limbs of the victim, two others outside of his limbs, and bound them securely together by means of the rope he held in his hand.
This was the arrangement called the “boot.”
For ordinary torture six wedges were inserted between the two planks, which, on being forced apart, crushed the flesh.
For severe torture ten wedges were inserted, and then the planks not only broke the flesh but the bones.
The preliminaries over, Maître Caboche slipped the end of the wedge between the two planks, then, mallet in hand, bent on one knee and looked at the judge.
“Do you wish to speak?” said the latter.
“No,” resolutely answered Coconnas, although he felt the perspiration rise to his brow and his hair begin to stand on end.
“Proceed, then,” said the judge. “Insert the first wedge.”
Caboche raised his arm, with its heavy mallet, and struck the wedge a tremendous blow, which gave forth a dull sound. The rack shook.
Coconnas did not utter a single word at the first wedge, which usually caused the most resolute to groan. Moreover, the only expression on his face was that of indescribable astonishment. He watched Caboche in amazement, who, with arm raised, half turned towards the judge, stood ready to repeat the blow.
“What was your idea in hiding in the forest?” asked the judge.
“To sit down in the shade,” replied Coconnas.
“Proceed,” said the judge.
Caboche gave a second blow which resounded like the first.
Coconnas did not move a muscle; he continued to watch the executioner with the same expression.
The judge frowned.
“He is a hard Christian,” he murmured; “has the wedge entered?”
Caboche bent down to look, and in doing so said to Coconnas:
“Cry out, you poor fellow!”
“Up to the head, monsieur,” said he.
“Second wedge,” said the judge, coldly.
The words of Caboche explained all to Coconnas. The worthy executioner had rendered his friend the greatest service in his power: he was sparing him not only pain, but more, the shame of confession, by driving in wedges of leather, the upper part of which was covered with wood, instead of oak wedges. In this way he was leaving him all his strength to face the scaffold.
“Ah! kind, kind Caboche,” murmured Coconnas, “fear nothing; I will cry out since you ask me to, and if you are not satisfied it will be because you are hard to please.”
Meanwhile Caboche had introduced between the planks the end of a wedge larger than the first.
“Strike,” cried the judge.
At this word Caboche struck as if with a single blow he would demolish the entire prison of Vincennes.
“Ah! ah! Stop! stop!” cried Coconnas; “a thousand devils! you are breaking my bones! Take care!”
“Ah!” said the judge, smiling, “the second seems to take effect; that surprises me.”
Coconnas panted like a pair of bellows.
“What were you doing in the forest?” asked the judge.
“By Heaven! I have already told you. I was enjoying the fresh air.”
“Proceed,” said the judge.
“Confess,” whispered Caboche.
“Anything you wish, but something.”
And he dealt a second blow no less light than the former.
Coconnas thought he would strangle himself in his efforts to cry out.
“Oh! oh!” said he; “what is it you want to know, monsieur? By whose order I was in the forest?”
“I was there by order of Monsieur d’Alençon.”
“Write,” said the judge.
“If I committed a crime in setting a trap for the King of Navarre,” continued Coconnas, “I was only an instrument, monsieur, and I was obeying my master.”
The clerk began to write.
“Oh! you denounced me, pale-face!” murmured the victim; “but just wait!”
And he related the visit of François to the King of Navarre, the interviews between De Mouy and Monsieur d’Alençon, the story of the red cloak, all as though he were just remembering them between the blows of the hammer.
At length he had given such precise, terrible, uncontestable evidence against D’Alençon, making it seem as though it was extorted from him only by the pain — he grimaced, roared, and yelled so naturally, and in so many different tones of voice — that the judge himself became terrified at having to record details so compromising to a son of France.
“Well!” said Caboche to himself, “here is a gentleman who does not need to say things twice, and who gives full measure of work to the clerk. Great God! what if, instead of leather, the wedges had been of wood!”
Coconnas was excused from the last wedge; but he had had nine others, which were enough to have crushed his limbs completely.
The judge reminded the victim of the mercy allowed him on account of his confession, and withdrew.
The prisoner was alone with Caboche.
“Well,” asked the latter, “how are you?”
“Ah! my friend! my kind friend, my dear Caboche!” exclaimed Coconnas. “You may be sure I shall be grateful all my life for what you have done for me.”
“The deuce! but you are right, monsieur, for if they knew what I have done it would be I who would have to take your place on the rack, and they would not treat me as I have treated you.”
“But how did the idea come to you?”
“Well,” said Caboche, wrapping the limbs of Coconnas in bloody bands of linen; “I knew you had been arrested, and that your trial was going on. I knew that Queen Catharine was anxious for your death. I guessed that they would put you to the torture and consequently took my precautions.”
“At the risk of what might have happened?”
“Monsieur,” said Caboche, “you are the only gentleman who ever gave me his hand, and we all have memories and hearts, even though we are hangmen, and perhaps for that very reason. You will see tomorrow how well I will do my work.”
“To-morrow?” said Coconnas.
Caboche looked at Coconnas in amazement.
“What work? Have you forgotten the sentence?”
“Ah! yes, of course! the sentence!” said Coconnas; “I had forgotten it.”
The fact is that Coconnas had not really forgotten it, but he had not been thinking of it.
What he was thinking of was the chapel, the knife hidden under the altar cloth, of Henriette and the queen, of the vestry door, and the two horses waiting on the edge of the forest; he was thinking of liberty, of the ride in the open air, of safety beyond the boundaries of France.
“Now,” said Caboche, “you must be taken skilfully from the rack to the litter. Do not forget that for every one, even the guards, your limbs are broken, and that at every jar you must give a cry.”
“Ah! ah!” cried Coconnas, as the two assistants advanced.
“Come! come! Courage,” said Caboche, “if you cry out already, what will you do in a little while?”
“My dear Caboche,” said Coconnas, “do not have me touched, I beg, by your estimable acolytes; perhaps their hands are not as light as yours.”
“Place the litter near the racks,” said Caboche.
The attendants obeyed. Maître Caboche raised Coconnas in his arms as if he were a child and laid him in the litter, but in spite of every care Coconnas uttered loud shrieks.
The jailer appeared with a lantern.
“To the chapel,” said he.
The bearers started after Coconnas had given Caboche a second grasp of the hand. The first had been of too much use to the Piedmontese for him not to repeat it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53